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Striking up a Symphony with George Mathew

Singaporean-born Indian conductor, George Mathew, came to America to study conservation biology in Hampshire College but ended up devouring the music curriculum at a liberal arts college.
BY Uttara Choudhury |   18-09-2014
George Mathew; Photo credit: Andrew Lepley
George Mathew is a dynamic presence on the podium of the world’s great orchestras. The gifted New York-based conductor-pianist-teacher is the founder and artistic director of Music for Life International which has its roots in humanitarian concerts, the first being a 2006 Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony concert at New York’s Carnegie Hall, to aid South Asian earthquake victims.

In January this year,Mathew conducted an orchestra consisting of 125 players assembled for a benefit concert titled “Shostakovich for the Children of Syria” at Carnegie Hall. The proceeds went to Doctors Without Borders, which has worked in Syria since 2009. Over the years, Mathew has led members of the New York Philharmonic, Brooklyn Philharmonic,Emerson Quartet and the Philadelphia Orchestra, plus students and faculty from Juilliard and Manhattan School of Music to raise funds for worthwhile causes.

“In gathering together as a community of musicians, listeners and supporters, we send a message of solidarity,” says Mathew, who is known for his ability to bring symphonic music to focus on global humanitarian issues and crises.

Mathew formed his first choir at the age of 14 for his church in Kerala. He came to the U.S to study conservation biology in Hampshire College but ended up devouring the music curriculum at a liberal arts college. He graduated in 2003 from the Manhattan School of Music with a postgraduate diploma after studies under Zdenek Macal and George Manahan. His conducting studies include master classes with Leonard Bernstein, Sir Colin Davis, Kurt Masur, Zdenek Macal, David Zinman, Sergiu Comissiona, and George Manahan. He is also a magna cum laude graduate of Amherst College and an alumnus of Duke University and the University of Minnesota.

Mathew talked to Braingainmag.com about following his passion for music and the enormous ethnic diversity in the conservatories.

1. Tell us a little about your Indian roots. Was there a lot of classical music in your house when you were growing up?

My parents, who are from Kerala, went to Singapore during World War II. I was born in Singapore. They stayed there for 30 years and then came back to Trivandrum. Now they have moved to Bangalore where two of my brothers live. In my parental home there was more Frank Zappa and hard rock then Beethoven and Bach.

I did not start listening to serious classical music till I was in high school. I started playing the piano in an informal way. Then we moved back from Singapore to India in 1976. After two years, the church which had a harmonium decided it wanted music so that is how it started. We formed a choir. I was 14 but since I could read music I had to teach everyone how to do it. My ears were getting sharper. I taped something off the BBC and transcribed it for the choir.

I clawed and fought my way to the Krishnamurthy School in Rishi Valley. I was a physics, chemistry and biology student. Rishi Valley was the most amazing year for me because it expanded the notion of what was possible. I won a scholarship to the Brockwood Park Krishnamurti Educational Centre in England. It is here that I found a wonderful piano teacher, Alan Rowlands who became a kind of encyclopedia. He brought me an orchestral score by the British composer Elgar.

2. What brought you to the United States?

George Mathew; Photo credit: Andrew Lepley

I came to the U.S to study conservation biology at Hampshire College. I was very serious about wildlife conservation but what happened is that I started attending all the music classes in the four colleges in Massachusetts. I ended up going through the music major curriculum at Amherst College. Jenny L Kallick, the wonderful Professor of Music at Amherst College, told me I had interesting ideas and should think about conducting. I later taught music at Amherst. Fast forward some 20 years later, Jenny Kallick was a cellist in the January 2006 benefit concert.

I have also lectured on social impact through music at institutions such as Amherst College, Manhattan School of Music, Tufts University and Southern Connecticut State University.

3. How seriously are non-western artists taken when they play, teach and conduct western music?

The well kept little secret is that there is a healthy community of Indians and South Asians in classical music. You don’t hear about them because they are not big press. There are at least four conductors of our academic generation in the U.S and by the same token I know a few in Europe. The ethnic diversity in the classical world and conservatories is enormous. There are parts of the spectrum that are under-represented like African American musicians at the highest levels of classical music but that is changing.

4. Do you think more Indians can find a toehold in the rarified world of classical music - and has Zubin Mehta made things easier?

Zubin Mehta is a phenomenon. Despite the musical influence in his life in the shape of his father Mehli Mehta who founded the Bombay Symphony, Zubin's initial field of study was medicine. It was only at the age of eighteen that he abandoned his medical career to attend the Academy of Music in Vienna. Soon he conducted both the Vienna and Berlin Philharmonics and became the music director of the New York Philharmonic Orchestra for thirteen years. I don’t think the concert-going audience see him so much as an Indian but a great classical musician.

Being Indian is far less rare than the lack of women conductors. Talk about the glass ceiling. Have you ever seen a female conductor? The whole social paradigm is hardwired to reflect gender bias.

Uttara Choudhury is Editor, North America for TV 18’s Firstpost news site and a writer for Forbes India. In 1997, she went on the British Chevening Scholarship to study Journalism at the University of Westminster, in London.

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