November 2, 2015

How an Alum Brought Western Classical Music (and a lot of Clevelanders) to the Eastern World

How an Alum Brought Western Classical Music (and a lot of Clevelanders) to the Eastern World

Imagine you’re a classically trained pianist about to perform in front of a crowd that can’t wait to hear your first note. But instead of seats, your audience sits on the floor. Instead of a Steinway, you’re playing on a keyboard you’ve brought with you. And out of the corner of your eye, you can see a heard of water buffalo saunter by. This was reality for alumna Jennifer Heemstra, who has spent the last year performing classical music all over India. She and her colleagues have performed in everything from the slums and poverty-stricken villages to ballrooms and 1,500-seat theaters packed to the brim. The one thing that these concerts have in common? Her audiences can’t get enough.

How did Heemstra, a graduate of CIM and newcomer to India, create a wildly successful concert series featuring Western classical music in the Eastern world? The answer is, with a lot of help—the kind of infectious generosity that continues to surprise and amaze Heemstra even today.

Heemstra moved to Kolkata about a year and a half ago after her husband got a job there. She quickly came to realize the city was teeming with culture. The arts, music, theater, literature; it was revered and sought after. Having spent the last 10 years in Cleveland after receiving her master’s degree in music from CIM, she was ready to take on the challenge of bringing classical music to a brand new audience. Her mission was simple: bring Western classical music to everyone in India.

The conditions were just right. She was in a city that appreciated the arts, but hadn’t been exposed to classical music of the West. There, Eastern classical reigns supreme, the twangs of the sitar familiar.

When Cleveland Orchestra cellist and CIM faculty Brian Thornton performed there with Heemstra for an audience of schoolchildren, he remembers how he started with the basics. “I had the school kids raise their hands in the audience, asking how many had seen a cello before in person,” says Thornton. “Three people raised their hands of about 1,500.”

Heemstra had her work cut out for her, but she was excited to bring her passion to an “untapped” market. “Essentially I got together with a group of locals who are passionate about music, as well as those who don’t necessarily have the background in music but who want to enrich their city and give back to their community,” she says. “Our idea is that music should be available to the masses, regardless of socioeconomic status.” After countless hours of planning with her team, they were ready to launch the concert series, Kolkata Classics. They had planned to start in March 2015, but an unexpected patron, Suresh Somani, got wind of the project and offered to kick-start the program, paying to bring in the first artist over the holiday season.

The generosity didn’t stop there. Heemstra was connected with one of the top patrons for the arts in India, Manjushree Khaitan of the Birla family. Mrs. Khaitan donated a 1,500-seat theater for the performances and offered to pay for the flights of the artists. “Through her sponsorship we have been very, very blessed,” says Heemstra. “She is working with us to promote Western classical music here in the city of joy.”

Donations and support for the project ranges from the local fashion designer Radhika Singhi who tailor makes traditional Indian outfits for each performer, to the only music store in Kolkata that donated its piano for the concerts, to radio stations and billboards that give free airtime and ad space for the series. And “the big one,” as Heemstra says, is the artists, all of whom donate their time. The support has resulted in Kolkata Classics becoming fully funded for its first year.

Read the rest of this story in page 12 of the Fall 2015 Issue of Notes Magazine, available here.