Wen we last spoke with Xerxes Unvala ’09 in 2014, he had just left the Kennedy Center to take a position as manager of programming and festivals at the National Centre for the Performing Arts (NCPA) in Mumbai, the first multi-venue, multi-genre cultural center in South Asia.
It was a good match. Just three years into his career at the NCPA, Unvala assumed the mantle of general manager of the Symphony Orchestra of India, the nation’s only full-time professional orchestra, and manager of Western classical programming at the NCPA.
Unvala’s days mostly revolve around the planning and execution of 50-some events each year, ranging from small ensemble concerts to international tours with the entire 70-plus piece symphony orchestra. We chatted with him about how performance arts have adapted throughout the pandemic and the benefits of being open to new experiences.
Are audiences returning to live performances?
Habits have changed. Some people have gotten used to consuming their entertainment through screens at home. Our audiences have mostly, but not completely, returned. For example, concerts I would have booked as sellouts are now not guaranteed to be so. Like many sectors, we have to rethink how and why we do things.
The novelty of home entertainment may have worn off, but we have to find the balance of live performance with a digital presence. I’m a tech geek, but there is a sanctity of the arts and the community experience of sitting with people around you that cannot be replaced.
What’s next for India’s national symphony?
We are keenly focused on national touring, alongside our international touring plans. This can be challenging, as India is so big and diverse. Western classical music is relatively new in India, and there are not many venues that can support a full-size orchestra.
We also run a music school and are being creative and finding ways we can support music education in other parts of the country to help bring Western classical music into more prominence.
As you look back on your career, what advice would you give to college students?
When I entered Denison, I had no idea I would eventually end up in arts management. In fact, I was considering a business-related major. Then I took my first class in music, which led to a Vail internship, and I realized how much I enjoyed it.
So be open to new experiences, be open to changing your mind — things evolve. And recognize your experience will not be like anyone else’s. My brother Rohaan Unvala ’17 and I both went to Denison and had very different experiences, yet we both had similar outcomes. (Rohaan is now on the faculty at the Drama School Mumbai.)