Archive for August 26th, 2010


The DFP Organ Resurfaces

After a year’s silence, the Organ Recitals at Dewan Filharmonik PETRONAS in Kuala Lumpur are back. The first one kicks off at 11.30 on Sunday morning the 19th September, and will be an intriguing mix of standard classics (there’s the Bach Toccata and Fugue in D minor) alongside some way out pieces (there’s some George Shearing as well as Zsolt Gárdonyi’s wonderful jazz take on Mozart). It’ll be fun, lasts about 40 minutes and is an informal concert – which means you can bring hosts of screaming children and not dress up. If you are worried about distracting the serious concert-goers, don’t. It’s free, so nobody can complain that they’ve wasted their money, and it’s not designed to be serious. The full programme is up on the MPO website.

So why a year without any organ recitals at DFP? There is a whole host of reasons why, and it seems only right to lay it all out here by way, not only of an explanation, but as an apology to all those loyal and enthusiastic Malaysian organ fans who have been starved of their fix. There have been three basic reasons.

First, the organ, now in place for a dozen years, has been letting us down with increasing frequency; as, indeed, any machine has a right to do when it goes on for years without proper servicing. True, we have a phenomenal and dedicated technician in Tan Eng Pin, who has, without any prior experience, single-handedly kept the instrument in tune and working over its first decade of life. But there comes a time in any machine’s life when it needs something a little more than TLC, and with so large and complex a machine as the KL Klais, we really need something in the way of a full technical and tonal overhaul, and that can only come from a professional team of organ builders.

Secondly, I have become increasingly disenchanted with the instrument, which was never really designed as a concert hall organ and requires astonishing feats of imagination and inventiveness just to get it to produce an acceptable sound in much repertoire. When you spend your professional life working with a flawed instrument you begin to tire of the effort involved, and while I, like any other musician, have a love-hate relationship with my instrument, I have to say that during 2008, the love died. I was simply hating the instrument and, if you hate something, how can you justify expecting an audience to listen to it? Musicians are transparent when it comes to the stage, and if a player isn’t happy, audiences quickly pick up on it. I think you were best off without me!

Thirdly, support from the management fell away during the 2008 season to the extent that I felt I was continually hitting my head against a brick wall. Artistically, there was absolutely nothing on offer; in fact, there were very strong obstacles being placed in the organ’s path. The organ chamber recitals had long ago been ruled out by successive artistic managers who made it virtually impossible for MPO musicians to participate in these concerts (one deliberately programmed other events against planned recitals), and my determination not to have the organ put into a ghetto, but to bring it alongside other instruments in the mainstream chamber series, was universally thwarted by those whose job it was to oversee the artistic management of the hall. Assistance from DFP management had not been much better. Requests to invite visiting organists of repute were met, as was continued appeals for a meeting to discuss plans for overhauling the organ itself, with total indifference.

So what’s changed?

In the case of nos 1 and 2, nothing. The organ is still decrepit and being held together by string and glue applied by the redoubtable Tan – its one airing in the 2009-10 series marked by yet another system failure. Tonally it’s as impractical and valueless as before, with its lack of proper bass pipes, its hideously ill-voiced reeds and its eccentric preponderance of soulless string tone over nice chunky German flutes making it as impossible as always to register. Nevertheless it is an instrument which I know intimately and, to be frank, I’ve missed playing it and enjoying the intellectual challenge of making a silk purse out of a sow’s ear.

In the case of no.3, signs are more hopeful. All the top management both artistic and administrative has changed, and while the MPO GM confesses to total indifference to the organ and the CEO is unwilling to commit to outlay on the organ, they do have the advantage of being both supportive and dedicated, and even if they do nothing, one feels an obligation to repay support and dedication.

On top of that the organ is, for the first time for two seasons, slated to be used in a number of MPO concerts, so it’s important to get it used as much as possible so that faults develop, if possible, before rather than during public concerts. I’m working on an Organ Page on the MPO website which will give details of concerts in which the organ is involved, as well as programmes and timings for the free recitals. On top of that, I’ll be getting the web man to add details of the specification and design for those who are interested in such things, and from now on, a copy of the specification will be available to those who attend the recitals. I’m also toying with the idea of listing my registrations up on the site, as I know this interests quite a lot of people. Most importantly, I’m keen to have as much input from audiences as possible – we need to try a different tack if we are to keep organ music alive and kicking in Malaysia – and if we can collectively persuade the powers-that-be that the organ is a valuable artistic (and not just visual) asset to DFP, that should help resolve issues 1 and 2.

And now for some history about the organ, which might explain why this situation has come about and why, to all outward appearances, the DFP people are throwing away a valuable asset. I was involved in the creation of the DFP almost from the very start. I remember when being shown some of the first design sketches for the interior of the auditorium that an organ was drawn in. This, I was informed, was artistic licence, there was no intention of adding an organ to a hall of such size and, moreover, it was not felt that there would be any public acceptance of an instrument perceived by many to be the preserve of the Christian church. When, sometime later, I was told that an organ was to be installed and, more than that, that the instrument itself had already been ordered, I was advised that it’s prime purpose would be for visual stimulation rather than to play an integral role in the artistic life of the hall. For this reason, no professional organ consultant was brought into advise, and the choice of builder, design and specification was entrusted to a lady whose main qualification for the job seemed to be that she lived fairly close (in Singapore) and played the organ in a church there. You only have to look at the specification she drew up to know that concert hall organ design was not her thing, and when word of it got around the organ community there was horror with more than one person ringing me up from the USA or Europe urging me to intervene. At that point, my involvement had nothing whatsoever to do with the organ, and I was not in any position to say or do anything. More than that, quite a lot of what I learned and was told was –and remains – confidential, so not only was I not allowed to pass on my concerns, but I wasn’t even able to acknowledge that I had any!

So the organ appeared and was opened by Simon Preston in a concert with the MPO. Even at that stage, it was obvious that it was inadequate to sit with the orchestra and was unsuited to solo work. However, in the first season a series of organ recitals was planned with star organists from the UK and elsewhere playing the standard repertoire you get in organ recitals in Europe and America. These proved to be a pretty dismal failure; at a time when the hall was enjoying 100% audiences as the norm, the 40% or less which came to recitals (and we saw the figures dropping dramatically) were unacceptable, and these guest recitals were quietly dropped over the succeeding seasons. At that point, with such a valuable musical resource apparently left to wither on the vine, I suggested I might apply to be organ curator, and put forward a case for a job which nobody had ever considered in the first place. That’s how I came to have this rather odd combination of being the man who writes everything for the concert programmes and advises on musical matters to various departments, and, at the same time, is the Resident Organist.

From the start, I decided to approach the use of the organ in an entirely new way. Realising that we couldn’t possibly cater to an audience with traditional organ music, I marketed the organ as a machine, as the biggest musical instrument in Malaysia and as something which could both whisper and thunder. In that, l was taking the organ back to its early days in Arabia where it’s original function was merely as a box of musical and sound tricks. It seemed appropriate, not least since in the early days of Islam the organ was seen as a symbol of great wealth (rather as a Mercedes Benz is seen today); I couldn’t resist the parallel with an oil company in an Islamic country also flaunting its great wealth. Such marketing worked more than we could ever have imagined, the first recital seeing people actually turned away at the door and others also finding the hall full to capacity. We attracted an audience from far and wide, one famous Hollywood actor making a point to stop off and hear a recital when he was filming in a nearby country. More than that, the children came pouring in and developed a great interest in the machine, and a couple of fantastic family fun days and children’s concerts sealed the place of the organ in the Malaysian musical psyche. On top of that there was the organ chamber series in which I unearthed a huge range of hitherto unexplored repertoire involving organ with various orchestral instruments, which attracted interest from around the world (including at least two unsolicited new scores), and, the icing on the cake, the Discovery Channel documentary in which my star pupil, Leonard Selva from Penang, gave a wonderful presentation about the organ and its background.

Unfortunately, a change in management and artistic direction rather put a stop to the advances we made. Well-intentioned moves to formalise what were essentially informal concerts, and to promote the organ once more in its discredited European way (with solo recitals featuring Buxtehude, Langlais, Franck and other dullards) saw audiences slump and, just at the time when we were needing to inject some funds into the instrument, it was made clear that the interest in the organ was insignificant and couldn’t justify any further expenditure.

So that’s what happened in KL. Let’s hope we can put the clock back with this new series of free recitals, and get the organ back into its rightful place as the fun centre of activities in the hall.

August 2010