A few months ago, Elon Musk, SpaceX founder and tech entrepreneur, had claimed that his company’s Starship spacecraft could take humans to the surface of the moon by 2023. He also committed to take eight artistes aboard this spacecraft. When the plan is in place Chennai-based Lydian Nadhaswaram wants to be one of them.
“I have always been fascinated by everything to do with space. When the mission is possible, I want to pack my piano, take it up there and play Moonlight Sonata,” says 14-year-old Lydian, about the famed Beethoven piece in a phone conversation from Chennai.
Beethoven may not have given the sobriquet — Moonlight Sonata (He called it Piano Sonata No 14 in C Minor, Quasi una Fantasia or almost a fantasy). The term came from German music critic and poet Ludwig Rellstab, who compared the first movement to the moonlight shining over Lake Lucerne. But he would’ve been proud at the thought of Lydian’s moon sojourn.
When Lydian performs it, he takes the brisk arpeggios and turns one of the most well-known piano pieces and a distinct melody into an enduring piece. He even attempts to pair his recording of the Sonata and pound some drums alongside. It was also the performance that won him the championship on the CBS show, The World’s Best, earlier this year. There were contestants from 195 countries competing for the coveted spot. The show has actor and producer Drew Barrymore, TV personality Ru Paul and singer and producer Faith Hill as its judges. On Saturday, also Mumbai Piano Day, Lydian performed at the National Centre for the Performing Arts, Mumbai. Later this month, he will perform alongside The Symphony Orchestra of India, which, this year, will feature performances by renowned artistes such as Alexander Lazarev, one of Russia’s foremost conductors; Simon O’Neill, one of the finest tenors on the international stage; well-known pianists Barry Douglas and Roberto Prosseda, among others.
When Lydian was born to music composer Varshan Sathish and his wife Jhansi, there was the significant matter of the name. The couple’s favourite raga was Kalyani (also known as Yaman) and they wanted the name to have something to do with the heptatonic evening raga. But Kalyani was feminine, so they chose its western equivalent — Lydian — taken from the Lydian mode, one of the seven modes of music. Nadhaswaram is a Carnatic classical wind instrument, the literal meaning of which is the feeling created by a musical note. The combination made sense to the couple and Lydian Nadhaswaram was born.
The boy figured the notes early on. His older sister spotted him tap in perfect rhythm on the plastic toy drums when he was two. She told their parents who began taking keen interest in Lydian’s musical talents. “My older sister was learning how to play the flute. So I heard a lot of that at home. Then there were a lot of Ilayaraja songs always playing in the house. There was all this music and many musical instruments. So I tried out whatever I could lay my hands on,” says Lydian, who can play 14 musical instruments including drums, tabla, bass guitar, harmonica and piano. Lydian initially learned scales from his father and sister and some techniques from YouTube videos. Soon videos of him performing Chopin were floating around on YouTube and Facebook.
When Lydian was eight, Sathish decided to send him for tabla training at AR Rahman’s KM Conservatory in Chennai. After a few days of learning, Lydian, one day, was roaming the halls of the Conservatory when he passed by Professor Surojeet Chatterjee’s Russian piano studio and could not forget the sound of the piano. Russian piano lessons are quite different from the more well-known British piano systems. The former transforms the otherwise percussive piano sound into a fluid flow, somewhat like the sound of the voice or strings. Lydian was hooked as he saw a student attempt Flight of the Bumblebee, an orchestral interlude written by Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov for his opera The Tale of Tsar Saltan in 1899. That practise session was enough for Lydian to memorise the rendition and he enrolled in the class. The piece, for years, has been known for its frantic pace and mastering it is a task. In his appearance on The World’s Best, Lydian performed the piece three times — at an average speed, at double the speed and twice the average speed. There was a standing ovation besides awe and applause. “It’s all to do with the practise. I, without fail, practise for about five-six hours a day. There is no TV in the house. So there isn’t any distraction either,” says Lydian, who is homeschooled by his parents.
As for music, he is not limiting himself to western classical only and is also attempting to learn jazz and regularly plays tabla and mridangam. “I want to compose for Hollywood in the future besides being a concert pianist,” he says.
Even before he won the CBS show, Lydian had begun to find a flurry of concert invitations from world over based on talks in the music circles. In 2017, Lydian was invited to participate in NBC’s Spanish-language TV show Siempre Niños in Miami. When he went to New York, he met John and Tina Novogratz, patrons of a thriving art city in New York. A performance on a Steinway, the big daddy of the piano world, at their home had Lydian super excited. A Steinway grand piano is a brilliant but expensive possession. When John’s brother Michael heard Lydian play, he announced, “When I come to Chennai, I’ll gift you a Steinway.” Michael kept his word. On Lydian’s birthday last year, a Steinway Model L reached Chennai airport. This is the piano that Lydian now uses for practise. “The tonal quality, the tone and the return of the keys is what makes Steinway special as compared to any other piano in the world,” says Lydian.
On the phone, Lydian sounds quite different from the way he did on The World’s Best and in the interview with Ellen DeGeneras that followed. The voice is now deeper as Lydian leaves boyhood behind. Lydian likes to sing but the change in the voice has suddenly come to trouble him. “I will work on it, practise, and turn it into a singing voice,” he says. We are listening.