The world’s busiest work desk greets me as I walk into Mario’s office: heavy volumes on accounts, audit, annual reports. Imagining a musician in this space is like doing a conjuring trick – when in walks Mario – tall, lithe, with a grace belying his years.
“I would describe myself as an accountant by profession and a musician by choice – I take both very seriously. Accounts is a large part of my work life – and music has been a very serious hobby that I have pursued.” This is when it strikes me, that understatement, is kind of Mario’s “thing”. After having almost won a prestigious scholarship to Trinity College, scored a gazillion awards, conducted choral groups for 34 years, collaborating with the likes of Louis Banks, Gary Lawyer and the Bombay Chamber Orchestra – he insists on calling it a hobby.
“I started off when I was around five or six, and you could say the credit goes to my parents for steering me towards music.” Mario’s tryst with music started with the violin, but in a few years’ time, he moved to playing the piano which was at home - his father being a doctor-pianist and his mother, a teacher and avid music lover. He did well, participated in a variety of entertainment programmes, and won awards at every event he participated in. One of the bigger awards that came his way was the Time and Talents’ interschool trophy, given to the best amongst all schools in Mumbai in a certain age category – this award was an eye-opener for Mario – a realisation that perhaps, just perhaps, he really was good enough to be taken seriously. He pursued it, appeared for the Licentiate Diploma from the Trinity College of Music, London for piano playing, and stood first among all Indian candidates world-wide. At that junction, Mario decided to choose the formal education of B.Com, while pursuing music in a serious way. The rigour of Chartered Accountancy made him realise that practicing for over four hours for the Fellowship Diploma from Trinity, was not going to be possible. He made up his mind to pursue accounts as a profession, and remain keenly interested in music. You can get the best of both worlds," he reinforces. Work-life balance comes easier to Mario than it does to most people – he gently reminds me that his father was a practicing physician while being a keen pianist himself."
Mario joined a few choirs and figured that he had a flair for conducting – the combination he had was working for him – he liked to teach, he could have been a performer, and he liked music. What also attracted him to conducting, and being the leader of a group, instead of a solo performer, was that making music together was about getting the best out of a team of people. That is his strength as a leader – the ability to coax the best out of people, and to work together harmoniously – whether it is while conducting an orchestra, or in office. "You have to get the best out of somebody else – interpret what the leader sees as the vision. Look at orchestras - every member is a soloist and a stage performer in his own right – and yet, every orchestra is known by the greatness of the conductor – who is able to weave the music into a story. "
ALL OF US LIKE TO IMAGINE WE ARE THE BEST, BUT IN THE END WE HAVE TO MAKE MUSIC AMONGST OURSELVES – AND THAT IS THE MOST DIFFICULT PART. PERFORMING UNDER SOMEONE ELSE’S BATON – THE GROUP DYNAMICS ARE PHENOMENAL. WHEN PEOPLE KNOW THAT YOU HAVE DONE YOUR HOMEWORK AND RESEARCH, AS A CONDUCTOR, IS WHEN THEY RESPECT YOU AND ARE WILLING TO FOLLOW YOUR LEAD.
When Mario took over the Cathedral choir in his Parish church, it comprised 12 or 13 members – today it is 42 member strong. Thirty-four years of conducting this team, keeping it together, nurturing it and not limiting it to church music, but participating in concerts, singing broadway, classical, jazz, religious and secular music – taking it to another level. I’m eager to know how many hours of dedicated practice is required before a major concert – and how that fits
into a busy work schedule. “A major concert with a visiting conductor, is a terrific learning opportunity – you learn techniques of the orchestra, techniques of the voice, and managing a group of artistes. It is a lot of work – first the choir prepares itself, then the Conductor puts the choir and orchestra together and rehearsals are typically on Sunday mornings and early mornings on weekdays. We have done several concerts with the Bombay Chamber Orchestra – a group of musicians in Bombay, who rehearse for an orchestral concert. As part of their repertoire of work, they also work with choirs. They have invited us to perform with them several times. We rehearse our part, the orchestra rehearses theirs – and a few weeks ahead of the concert, the Conductor (generally a Guest Conductor from abroad) puts it together. Compositions can be interpreted in different ways, and the Conductor of the day firms up the final interpretation and brings out the nuances. The choir has to get accustomed to the orchestra, and vice versa. The Conductor has to get used to the choir and the orchestra, and the other way around. While it might sound like cacophony, we end up making music.”
What does it take to be part of or lead a group of musicians, each a specialist in his own right, and make music together? “All of us like to imagine we are the best, but in the end we have to make music amongst ourselves – and that is the most difficult part. Performing under someone else’s baton – the group dynamics are phenomenal. When people know that you have done your homework and research, as a conductor, is when they respect you and are willing to follow your lead.
What is music? Music is not sticking to four beats in a metrical fashion – it is a sign of expression, and you can express yourself in so many different ways – that is when you need a unified body to tell you that you will do it in a particular way – this is when you pause, this is when there will be an exclamation, when to raise your voice, when to lower your voice. That is the joy of making music together. Thus if one predominant voice makes a mistake, you just have to carry on as if nothing went amiss. I was once performing with Louis Banks and Gary Lawyer, and in the midst of that concert, before the piece, the introduction we hear is totally different from the one we are prepared for. I was the conductor for that concert - I looked at Louis, and we decided on the spot, to pick it up and go with it. Those are your moments of truth – that is the test of your mettle - the real fun of it.”
Biggest lesson learnt? “One of my biggest lessons has been, how as a conductor, you can unnerve a group in one minute. There was this concert I was conducting, and halfway through it, I sensed that the attention was waning among the singers. After that piece, we went backstage and I asked what was wrong. The answer I got was astonishing – it seems, my facial expression had been alarming, and that completely unnerved the singers. I realized that if you are the conductor, people draw from you and from your expressions.
If you convey anything that spells doom, you won’t get a performance. So even if you are upset, if you let it show on your face, it becomes contagious…and that spreads a wrong message. From there it is all downhill. When you are on stage, everything has to be hunky dory – you have to smile and go ahead.”