It was a case of “East meets West” – both musically and literally – last night at Cadogan Hall as the Symphony Orchestra of India continued its debut tour of the UK (launched the previous evening in Birmingham) with its first London appearance. The programme neatly paired Orient and Occident, with the caravan of silks and spices in Rimsky-Korsakov’s Scheherazade preceded by a distinctly Indian take on western concerto form in Zakir Hussain’s Peshkar, spotlighting the tabla.

Zane Dalal conducts the Symphony Orchestra of India
© NCPA Mumbai

In orchestral terms, the Symphony Orchestra of India is still a toddler. Founded as recently as 2006, it is resident in the Jamshed Bhabha Theatre in Mumbai’s National Centre for the Performing Arts, created by Khushroo Suntook (NCPA Chairman) and the Kazakh violinist Marat Bisengaliev in a desire to spread performances of western classical music in India. A glance at the platform indicates that there is still work to do. Only around 15 of the players are Indian. Up to 26 nationalities are represented in the orchestra’s regular line-up, with several Brits and many Kazakhs, some of whom teach in the NCPA’s own training programme. In time, it is to be hoped that the percentage of homegrown talent will increase.

This programme was conducted by Associate Music Director Zane Dalal whose approach could best be summarised as “safety first”. Thus, the cor anglais solo near the beginning of the overture Le Carnaval romain was taken at a pedestrian pace, the cello ensemble disappointingly thin. One sensed, not unreasonably, an orchestra trying to get a sense of its bearings, Dalal marshalling his forces like a traffic policeman making sure none of the lively themes broke the speed limit. Admittedly, this is not a new problem in this overture. Berlioz, in his memoirs, castigated the limp speeds he once encountered: “They resumed the Allegro at a still more dragging speed than before, the blood rushed to my head, I grew scarlet and, unable to keep my temper, cried out, ‘It is not the Carnival, it is Good Friday they are playing!’” No temper tantrums here, but this was not the most exciting account.

Symphony Orchestra of India
© NCPA Mumbai

Much stronger was the orchestra’s performance of Scheherazade, despite some pregnant pauses in the Sultan’s opening brass growls and the calming woodwind chords that preface the solo violin’s storytelling. Albanian Adelina Hasani was sweetly persuasive, if not always tonally secure, but the joy of this performance was the quartet of woodwind principals, especially the engaging bassoon commentary from Emily Hultmark (a familiar face to London audiences as Philharmonia co-principal). Clarinets kicked up their heels – and lifted their bells – in the opening Sea and Sinbad's Ship episode, though later on the Young Princess’ palanquin in the third movement was never going to earn a speeding ticket. Dalal’s Scheherazade was stately rather than thrilling.

Zakir Hussain
© Jim McGuire

The most interesting item on the programme on paper turned out to be the least interesting in performance. Zakir Hussein’s dexterity on the tabla is astonishing, fingers and heels of his hands tracing the most intricate patterns. Sitting cross-legged on a raised platform, having dusted his palms with talcum powder – blowing a cloud towards his conductor! – his cadenzas were hypnotic. However, any concerto is reliant on a dialogue between soloist and orchestra, and Hussein’s correspondents had little interesting to say – a vanilla orchestral score as bland as custard, although dutifully dispatched.