Wednesday June 1, 2005

James Vadiveloo, an undeclared pro


James Vadiveloo
1949 - 2005

omething rang at 6.45am. It wasn’t the alarm. It was the phone. It was either my sister-in-law or...James Vadiveloo. Luckily! With a brisk request to me to sing on a programme he had in mind to present. Which meant he had it all thought out. Down to my part of the repertoire.  

I accepted, and thanked him for the wake-up call.  

For some 20 years, James was my regular collaborator in presenting songs the way they ought to be sung. Accurately pitched. At the indicated pace. With other dynamics observed, just as the composers must have intended. There was allowance for the occasional deviation - at rehearsals, when both pianist and singer took some liberty with either the tempo of a section, a phrase or a bar of notes. 

Or in trying out a different piano-voice balance. Or toying with more gusto in a line. Most times the final call was to be faithful to the composers’ intent. All times, it was the correct thing to do. Call it purist’s perfection, if nothing else. James’s. 

The KL Chamber Music Players (from left) James Vadiveloo, daughter Premila and son Prem.

Nothing really scientific, although James was a man of science, with a PhD in agriculture that included some knowledge of cattle feed (which if he had capitalised on, could just have kept him more than gainfully employed on research into mad cow business). No. If his studied approach to his music be called scientific, it was the corrective pep for my laid-back sense of timing. It ensured both precision and flavour at the performance to come.  

It was art. For, as a soloist first, James might not have been expected, even if he had to comport himself, to “subsume” this God-given streak to the vocal style of those he accompanied on the piano. That he was able to shift mode after the last note of a Beethoven sonata’s last movement and be sensitive to a singer’s idiosyncrasies next, was his artistry enhanced.  

For all the regard he had earned from those who ever were fortunate to have heard him, this undeclared professional was no show-off. Instead, his disdain of put-on showbiz bravura, suited his audience. They were enthralled by his keyboard dexterity, undistracted by his lack of visual accoutrement. And, not one to flaunt his flair, he also never wavered at the sight of a smaller turnout, because those who came were his relevant audience. Ironically, this natural modesty was his only handicap - arguably.  

A visit to the Vadiveloo home to rehearse was a useful experience in concentration. Toddling daughter Premila (now a soloist in the making) was allowed to sit in, and fall asleep. Son Prem, before he turned teenager, was not always granted the same privilege, since he tended to want to be heard at the computer next to the piano. An emerging soloist in his own right, he envelopes the keyboard when interpretatively taming Rachmaninov or effecting the right Brahmsian touch. 

Wife Sheila was non-interfering, but, come time to produce the coffee, had the insightful comment on how we sounded. When my daughter Claris joined the organised milieu, I felt better represented, less nervous. (Claris, in fact, sang more often with James in the last two years than I did.) 

There was hardly a repertoire I had to do for James. He either asked for a suggestion, or simply knew what was my preference. So that he agreed to doing Vaughn Williams’ Songs of Travel more than twice, probably because he heard me say I liked Robert Louis Stevenson’s poems, which were the lyrics in this 14-song cycle. When we presented Bach’s music, it was preferably in German, which James knew would ensure the correct fitment with the piano’s notated nuances. 

And when it came to Schubert, I always thanked my stars. Indeed, he was most deft in delivering the nightmare of Der Erlkönig (The Erlking) in all its feverish intensity.  

The KL Chamber Music Players which James formed (way back when) performed largely at The British Council, collaborating with not only musicians like Richard Dorall (flawless on flute) and non-Malaysians like Klaus Vlomer of Switzerland, but also actors and directors of theatre like Bosco de Cruz, Leslie Dawson, Sukania Venugopal and Faridah Merican.  

To ensure a sizable turnout, James introduced the dual programme, of music in one half, and a short play in the other. With the demise of Bosco and Leslie, the idea soon waned. But his decision to hold recitals at home on Jalan Terasek 7, in Kuala Lumpur, was not a withdrawal from public exposure. 

He soon spotted his next opportunity: to include Carnatic music, complete with vocalist, in a mixed programme with Western composers’ works. This had its own attraction, and happened over and again. His last offering was Anyone Can Play, the first organised serious music event this year. Four of those who performed after being auditioned were not presented before by the KLCM Players, a fitting testimony to the magnet that James was as an artist of reputation.  

And one who believed in re-perfecting himself. Hence, his interest in re-presenting the “tougher” songs and song cycles, although, strangely, I do not recall his ever replaying a piano piece in any future programme. He repeatedly liked the Brahms cycle Four Serious Songs.  

Of these, he was especially drawn to the third, O Tod (O Death) with its lyrics drawn from chapter 41 of the book of Ecclesiasticus from the Apocrypha: O Tod, wie bitter bist du (O Death, how bitter are you) which ends in the poignantly reconciliatory O Tod, wie wohl thust du (O Death, how welcome). 

He also allowed for the rare “frolic”, as when we presented Cantique de Noel (O Holy Night) last December to top off a programme with a touch of Christmas.  

He had thrilled me when he played this for me, sans score, the year before when I was enroute to sing the piece elsewhere and needed to know its pace and line. 

In 1965, when I was introduced to a shy, dutiful secondary schoolboy by his brother John at their home, I did not know of the enriching association to come working with this musicians’ musician.  

James Vadiveloo could strut his stuff, because he was master of his craft. This will be his unvaunted legacy. 

Eddy Chin sang O Tod in tribute at James Vadiveloo’s funeral on May 29. He was accompanied by Prem Vadiveloo on the piano.

Dr James Vadiveloo
VI 1961-1967

VI The V.I. Web Page