Sixty years of music – Symphony Orchestra marks milestone


Earl de Fonseka

2017 sees the Symphony Orchestra of Sri Lanka reach its 60th year—an important milestone in the history of any institution. It is a testament to the enduring nature of this organization and its dedication to preserving, supporting and promoting western classical music in this country. The SOSL is the oldest orchestra in the South Asian region that has been performing continuously throughout its existence.

The Symphony Orchestra of Ceylon, as it was called then, was established by the panel for Western Music, Dance and Drama of the Arts Council of Ceylon in 1958. Its first concert in 1958 was conducted by Mr. Hussein Mohammed, and featured the famed MalineeJ ayasinghe-Peiris as soloist. The event received the good wishes of then Prime Minister S.W.R.D. Bandaranaike, whose message appeared in the first concert program. He wrote: "The formation of the Symphony Orchestra is the first venture of its kind undertaken by the Arts Council, and I wish the Arts Council of Ceylon and in particular the Panel for Western Music, Dance and Drama, all success in the promotion of the Symphony Orchestra of Ceylon."

The longsighted members of the Arts Council would feel vindicated today, if they could see how the fledgling orchestra they sponsored has prospered and thrived.

One of the key figures in the SOSL’s history is Kala Keerthi Dr. Earle De Fonseka, who stood at its helm from 1960 to 2000 - 40 years during which he steered the orchestra through the storms that blew as surely as he did through the years of smooth sailing. He inspired generations of musicians, and his legacy lives on as the SOSL moves forward to bring a new generation of musicians into the musical fold.

The position of conductor of the SOSL has since been held by Lalanath De Silva, Dr. Ajit Abeysekera, Ananda Dabare, Manilal Weerakoon, Eshantha Peiris, and at present, Dushyanthi Perera.The orchestra has also benefitted greatly from the guidance of visiting conductors, with musicians like Hans-Joachim Koellreutter and Sir Steuart Wilson directing in the past, while more recently the SOSL has performed under the baton of Gregory Rose, James Ross, Keiko Kobayashi and Ksenia Zharko.

The SOSL has been fortunate indeed in its concertmasters. Eileen Prins led the orchestra at its inception, and remained for 27 years—a legendary performer and teacher whose influence is still felt today in the caliber of students she trained. After her came Tania Anadappa - a dedicated leader whose technical facility was matched by her musical sensitivity. Tania was succeeded by Ananda Dabare—the foremost violinist in the country today, and worthy indeed to fill the shoes of his predecessors. Ananda is known as a brilliant performer and teacher, and his students have since constituted a large section of the SOSL’s violin section. The immensely talented Thushani Jayawardena was the next to take up the position, and currently the SOSL in jointly led by two extremely accomplished young violinists— Nilupul Silva and Sulara Nanayakkara.

Fostering young talent has always been a focal point of the orchestra. The biennial Concerto Competition was one of the SOSLs vehicles for showcasing young talent, and this competition served as a platform for aspiring young musicians to give their orchestral debuts in their chosen instrument. Notable Sri Lankan musicians Dushy Perera, Soundarie David, Tharanga Goonetilleke, Tania Ekanayake and Kishani Jayasinghe are among the winners of this competition -which to many was a starting point in a distinguished career in music. The SOSL also reserves one of its yearly subscription concerts for young musicians and composers, providing young artists with opportunities to perform in public and encouraging them to develop and nurture their talents.

The SOSL has also developed the JSO or Junior Symphony Orchestra as a training-ground for younger players, providing valuable opportunities for students to learn the arts of orchestral and ensemble playing while developing both technically and musically.

The orchestra has organized many outreach programs for which the SOSL has traveled as far as Jaffna, Kilinochchi, Galle, Kandy and Kurunegala in order to perform educational concert-lectures that have not only helped to awaken interest in classical music, but have also helped music students to see and hear live orchestral music for the first time in their lives. It organizes a free concert for school children every year, which students of western music in areas as distant as Jaffna attend.

The SOSL has for years been recognized as Sri Lanka’s only full symphonic orchestra which regularly performs music requiring a full complement of orchestral instruments. In 2007, the SOSL was chosen to represent Sri Lanka at Asia Orchestra Week - a festival celebrating symphonic music, and the symphony orchestras of the Asia-Pacific region. This festival took place in Tokyo, and the SOSL performed at one of the best concert halls in the world - the Tokyo Opera City Concert Hall, under the baton of Maestro Yazaki Hikotaro.

The SOSL was also called upon to perform as part of the official events organized for the Commonwealth Heads Of Government Meeting, which took place in Sri Lanka in 2013. It was part of a multi-national orchestra comprising of players from the UK, India and Sri Lanka, and on this momentous occasion performed at Nelum Pokuna under the baton of James Ross. More recently, in February of 2017, the Embassy of China invited the SOSL to perform a joint concert with the China National Symphony, China’s national orchestra, to celebrate the 60th anniversary of diplomatic relations between Sri Lanka and China. This gala concert was held at the BMICH under the distinguish patronage of the President and the Prime Minister.

The SOSL has since its inception, been a bastion of classical and orchestral music in this country. It has nurtured and shaped the career of many a musician, has for 60 years been either the only or one of the main sources of live symphonic music in the country, and has actively been involved in education and training for much of its history.

In the words of the poet Arthur O’Shaughnessy - "We are the music makers and we are the dreamers of dreams. .. yet we are the movers and shakers of the world forever, it seems."

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