Musical Fun

The last MPO Family Fun Day was, for me, a big disappointment. For several years now the MPO has resorted to buying in off-the-peg family shows. This makes life really easy for the management which only has to provide the orchestra and the publicity; the package they have bought provides professional presenter, script, a theme and the music. Unfortunately, this too often lands them with a show which is wholly irrelevant to their audience. That was very much the case with the “Time Travellers” show I attended. Bemused by the reference to space travel at the start (was this “Time Travellers” or “Space Travellers”?) it was quickly apparent that few Malaysian children know about Dr Who. It was a cult BBC TV series in its heyday – is still, perhaps – and old episodes do pop up in clusters on the BBC Entertainment channel here in Asia. But what percentage of the audience had ever seen an episode? The feedback I got from the audience registered complete bafflement about this unknown “Time Lord”. Did the MPO management discuss the full content of the show before they booked it? I suspect not. Alasdair Malloy (whose show it was) has done some fun things with the MPO over the past seasons, but there is only so much an individual percussion player cum presenter can do, and he has possibly reached his limit. Perhaps the time has come for the MPO to go back to those heady days when it devised its own Family Fun Days using local performers in shows relevant to local perceptions.

A bit of educational input wouldn’t be a bad thing either. When I was sent the programme for “Time Travellers”, it took a lot to coax out of a seemingly disparate range of musical extracts some kind of coherent theme. Yet it did seem superficially full of potential – a wonderful journey through the long history of music dropping in on the centuries and possibly with Alasdair re-costuiming himself with each period, giving us along the way, some historical perspective on the development of music; musical value, fun and education all rolled into one with a strong relevance to Malaysian audiences. Not a bit of it. He chose to be Dr Who and used not the “proper” concert music extracts of the programme but a little bit derived from the Dr Who theme music (ironically a theme best known for its electronic effects, which were largely omitted from the MPO performance) to ignite his time machine to get it into the 21st century. The idea was remarkably similar to the Disney Channel’s “Little Einsteins” where the viewers are invited to tap their knees to the music in order to fuel up the rocket; only here, the audience sat passively and merely were invited to clutch their shoulders while Alasdair stood stock still in a dreary trench-coat while coloured lights flashed about unconnected with the music. There was the trademark Malloy dance, but other than that, musically and educationally, it did nothing other than spin out the obligatory hour (mostly, it had to be said, with talk rather than music).

Compare this with the super event I attended last night with The Philharmonic Orchestra of Singapore. They have embarked on a series (well, it hopes to be a series) called “Composers Tonight” in which they explain the background of a work in the first half and then play it all the way through in the second. This is certainly not a new concept – I attended a brilliant one on Mahler with the Chicago Symphony and Pierre Boulez some years ago and reckon it was about the best educational performance about music I have ever seen – and it’s one many MPO audience members (and orchestral players, for that matter) have been pressing me to arrange for years. I even did one a couple of seasons ago, but the powers-that-be allowed me just a string quartet and a bare rehearsal room, so the effect was greatly devalued. But the way The Philharmonic Orchestra of Singapore did it was both fun and rewarding, no clever effects, no fussy videos, merely a presenter in the first part with the orchestra performing live extracts, and a straightforward concert performance in the second.

It worked so well because of the inspired choice of presenter – William Ledbetter, who was both natural in his delivery and clearly on top of his subject – and because the conductor (Lim Yau) had such a strong rapport with both presenter and orchestra. And, boy, what an impressive band The Philharmonic Orchestra of Singapore is! Polished and alive, they produced a fantastic sound which at its best was rich and tight and, at worst, suffered only small lapses of string intonation mostly in the cellos and basses. What surprised me most was that the show was successful despite tackling a work which, with the best will in the world, can only be described as “heavyweight” – Brahms’s First Symphony. True, there were a few solecisms (“Sonata form is exclusively reserved for the first movements of symphonies”), but while it was delivered with humour and an accessible casualness, William Ledbetter made the script very much his own, which gave his delivery an undercurrent of authority despite the decorative playfulness. Whoever wrote the script (and I don’t suppose it was Ledbetter himself) deserves a special commendation; even I, who have known Brahms 1 inside out for the best part of half-a-century, felt that I’d learnt something new and, when it came to the complete performance, the audience clearly identified with those bits of the music they had had explained to them in the first half. I particularly liked the moment when the entire Espalande audience sat making the signs of the letters A, B and C to show the structure of the third movement – and I think I was not alone in being tempted to do it again when the piece was given its “serious” performance. Add to this Lim Yau’s breezy and beautifully focused direction, tightly controlled (as befits a non-professional orchestra) but with plenty of interpretative individuality to make the performance worth listening to in its own right.

Two small comments. It’s really not a good idea for the orchestra to play from photocopies. I’m sure it was all legal and above board and was only done to ease awkward page turns, but it not only looked bad – the front desk cellos’ copy, sellotaped together like a concertina, unravelled during the final movement and spent the rest of the concert on the floor like so much litter, while the back desk first violins spent much of the first movement chasing around an errant page which was attracted to the draught from the air-conditioning – it also gave a very bad impression; if an audience has paid good money to hear an orchestra, they really don’t like to think that the orchestra has penny-pinched by stealing the music rather than buying their own copies. Secondly, can we get rid of this horrible habit of making excuses to justify listening to classical music. William Ledbetter began his bit by rolling out the old clichés about “Why are we here when we could be at a hawker centre?”, “Why are we at a concert when we could be at home/at the movies/ etc. etc.?”. Why do we need an excuse to justify going to a concert? Put it the other way round. Why go to a hawker centre when you could be enjoying much greater nourishment at a concert? Why stay at home/go to the movies, when you could be enjoying the ultimate cultural and artistic experience in the concert hall? Make the people who DON’T go to concerts feel silly, don’t make us feel that we need to apologise for our attendance. Any concert-goer knows that strange other-worldy feeling you get when you leave a concert hall after a moving experience and see people who weren’t there; you feel sorry for them that they have missed such an uplifting experience and you wonder how shallow their lives must be because they weren’t there.

Concerts are fun and rewarding experiences. You don’t need wall-to-wall movie and TV themes to sugar the pill or a presenter pretending to be something wholly unmusical in the belief that this is the only way to “communicate” to non-specialist audiences. If the MPO were to hire William Ledbetter and Lim Yau (who hasn’t conducted the MPO – which is the orchestra’s loss) to do their Family Fun Days, I’m sure the results would be far more rewarding and enjoyable to the Malaysian audience than getting some bought-in European or North American show with minimal relevance either to the audience or to the business of the MPO itself – which is to play the great works of music in their entirety, unabridged and unmolested, and NOT to churn out pale imitations of movie and TV soundtracks.

And while, as I travel around Asia, I am wholly convinced that the MPO is by leaps and bounds the finest orchestra on the continent (and that includes Australia and New Zealand), when it comes to non-professional orchestras, you’d search long and hard before you met the equal of The Philharmonic Orchestra of Singapore.


3 Responses to “Musical Fun”

  1. 1 Alasdair Malloy
    April 12, 2010 at 7:00 pm

    Alasdair Malloy writes:

    Dr Marc’s critique of my recent concerts in Malaysia raises some questions which I am happy to answer here as a casual reader of this blog may not be aware of his role in the whole proceedings of such events.

    The show “Time Travellers” was specifically chosen by MPO management, having seen it performed elsewhere, because of it’s strong educational purpose coupled with the kind of repertoire not normally found in concerts of this type – including Britten’s Courtly Dances from his opera Gloriana, together with Respighi’s Bergamasca from his Ancient Airs and Dances, a traditional folk song from Ecuador and a complete movement from The New World – all held together by time travel music which clearly highlighted not only the different sections of the orchestra but also how different groupings of instruments blended together.
    This was given coherence and purpose by my central role as a time traveller, where the first piece of music, the Bergamasca, had slipped us back in time and by using different combinations of instruments as the propulsion for our time machine we moved through history eventually returning to the present day.
    As with many other orchestras, the MPO uses the same programme for family fun concerts and for schools concerts, making the choice of material crucial and the elements of interaction carefully considered for such differing purposes and age ranges. This was never intended as a musicological exercise, and indeed my whole purpose in these concerts is to present as wide a range of musical styles as possible with the orchestra as the main focus, rather than them being a “backing band” as so often happens.

    Dr Marc is correct in that my time travelling character is indeed modelled on the cult BBC TV series Doctor Who, which is now one of the BBC’s most successful international exports, and my costume and use of the theme music are exactly as used in the present and most popular series. In discussion with the MPO management in advance of this run of performances, we were fully aware that not everyone would recognise such a specific connection and decided that all literal references to Doctor Who should be removed from the programme and the script, allowing the audience to accept my character purely as a time traveller from somewhere else in space. The Doctor Who theme music, which also provided the basis for the time travel moments, was retained because although many of the audience would not know it, it has an energy and immediacy which would suit this type of audience and event. It is worth noting that this was the only piece of TV or film music in the programme, despite Dr Marc’s dismissive remarks to the contrary.

    When I submitted the programme, with all of this in mind I specifically requested two things in order to avoid any bafflement: I made it very clear that the pieces based on Doctor Who should not be mentioned in the programme, and I also insisted that the remainder of the pieces being performed should not be listed in the order that they would be played, but presented as part of a “time-line”, which would further enhance the purpose of the time travel music and overall concept. I supplied clear details of the dates and historical contexts each piece would refer to and specific programme notes for each piece relevant to this.

    I was dismayed to be handed a programme prior to the first performance and to see that both these requests had been ignored – all the pieces were listed, in the order of performance, and the programme notes written by Dr Marc himself, not only included several paragraphs specifically devoted to Doctor Who but, not for the first time, contained many references contradictory to my use of some pieces in the show.

    Perhaps if Dr Marc had chosen not to second-guess my overall concept and the purpose of the musical works in the programme and presented the programme notes and running order as requested, he might have felt less uncomfortable as the concert unfolded and he realised that he had guessed incorrectly.

    I agree entirely with Dr Marc that the shows for the Family Fun Days (and for the schools concerts) should be relevant to local perceptions, and his assertion that you don’t need wall-to-wall movie and TV themes to sugar the pill, which I have never done, but the reaction and comments which I received from the members of the orchestra themselves to this programme suggested that they welcomed the fact that it contained several significant works which represented more than purely familiar Western classical music and that they themselves felt acquitted and well represented as a result.

  2. 2 Chan Lai Jin
    April 18, 2010 at 9:27 am

    We dont get Dr Who in Malaysia, so I dont think anyone in the audience understood the show. I went with my two kids and it was only Dr Marcs program notes which made any sense to us. Can Alasdair Malloy explain why he insisted on using the original Dr Who music and yet insisted on removing all references to Dr Who from his show? Doh? You cant have it both ways!

  3. 3 William Ledbetter
    May 5, 2010 at 10:22 pm

    Hello Dr Rochester,

    Firstly, thank you so very much for your glowing review of our concert “Brahms Tonight”. I am so gratified that you, a person who clearly has spent years of passion in the classical music arena, felt so well served by our concert.

    When Mr Lim Yau, Orchestra President Ching Shiong Yeow and I sat down in January to flesh out the idea that ultimately became this concert, we had high hopes of reaching an audience with a broad and varied, but not necessarily comprehensive, exposure to classical music.

    As the narrator (and writer – thank you for catching that slip regarding Sonata form!), I envisioned my target audience as being the late-Secondary/early Junior college student, and the ‘average’ Singaporean who was attending their first concert with an open mind.

    I agree with you that classical music needs no apology (and, ideally, no explanation). My intent in the opening of the lecture was to anticipate possible questions about the viability of the classical tradition in the 21st century, and to try to take the audience into a deeper and more personal exploration of the shared musical experience. I will certainly take your critique to heart when I start writing for our next ‘Composers Tonight’.

    Thank you, again for your kind words, your critique, and for simply caring enough about music to write this blog.


    William Ledbetter

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