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The year was 1988. Neil Nongkynrih was 15 years old when he made his way to England, thousands of miles away from home, in Shillong. He'd just won his first national piano competition and a wealthy sponsor had ensured that the music prodigy got a seat at the Guildhall School of Music in London and later at Trinity College. Nongkynrih then discovered life in the West and had no plans of returning. "The life there suited me, I was performing as a concert pianist, I taught, it was a good life. Till I started falling ill and the doctor suggested I go home to rest," says Nongkynrih. The prodigal son returned after 15 years and hated being back. "There were no plans to start a choir. But soon people heard that a fellow had returned from London and these tags go a long way. I had no pressure to perform. So with a bunch of students, we began the choir," says Nongkynrih.
His music was inspired by the second Viennese school, because "it was no longer cool to play Mozart or Chopin". But three years ago, the Shillong Revival (where masses claimed to have experienced the Holy Spirit) changed the mood in the Valley. "It changed my music too," he says. With a new band of students, Nongkynrih went back to his roots, Khasi and Classical and began composing new music that was old fashioned, baroque but timeless. Change worked for them, 2009 has seen the choir perform with the Vienna Chamber Orchestra in March, with a Sri Lankan choir in China this June; in July, the choir participated in the World Choir Games, an Olympic-styled event, held in South Korea and won the silver medal.
But Nongkynrih and the choir are not chasing the gold or the glory. Ibarisha Lyngdoh, the 16-year-old soprano of the choir has been offered a place at the Julliard School of Music in New York, William Basaiawmoit, 21, a student of St Stephen's College has been offered a scholarship in France. But they're not leaving the Choir. "We have a good teacher in Uncle Neil. We're happy here, we get to sing, we travel, we have a home," says Basaiawmoit. Since the choir is adamant about staying in Shillong, the world has come calling. Nonkynrih has been appointed as a guest conductor at the Vienna Chamber Orchestra and will be the artistic director for their next production in 2010.