A new season in Kuala Lumpur

This weekend has seen the start of the new concert seasons of both the Malaysian Philharmonic Orchestra and Dewan Filharmonik PETRONAS. It’s always nice that this is made into a special, celebratory occasion, and in the past we have had open days, quizzes, fun events in and out of the hall and a veritable musical jamboree. After 12 seasons, however, MPO and DFP have both become firmly established in the cultural calendar and there is no need to make quite such a splash – after all if Malaysians don’t know it’s there already, they’re not likely to care about it anyway – so the weekend was given over, rightly, to the core business; four concerts and a talk about the musical highways and byways of the new season.

The big winner of the weekend was Italy, whose composers dominated the three orchestral concerts. Think Italy and you think opera, and as I’ve already observed in this blog, the masses seem to have gone bonkers over singers. Probably their interest has been fired by the Idol and Got Talent franchises, but if their passion is for the quirky assortment of dubious talent which is mostly paraded on those shows, the kind of vocal talent they experienced at Saturday’s MPO Gala Concert would have come as quite a shock. The programme the American soprano Nicole Cabell gave them was predictable enough – even down to O, Mio babbino caro – but she delivered it with rare conviction, authority and insight. She’s an intensely musical singer, short on flamboyant mannerisms and dramatic flourishes, heavy on control, integrity and precision. She was, perhaps, a little fazed by such a small concert hall, and consequently rather understated her delivery; her voice didn’t always reach every corner of the auditorium – a little more panning up and down and side to side might have helped – but even then, the artistry behind the voice blazed through. I was stunned by the radiance she brought Rusalka’s Song to the Moon, and the audience adored the lot, even if her Saturday encore – Summertime – didn’t (somewhat surprisingly) really hit the mark.

Supporting her but by no means confined to her albeit modest shadow, the MPO reminded us that they aren’t just another orchestra. On the kind of crackling form they were on on Saturday, they are a towering presence in the world of live orchestral music and, despite having just suffered a period of extended silence – although they have been surreptitiously filling in their time with some recording when Ramadan, coming on top of the northern summer break, made their season break the best part of two months long – they are still there, up at the top, mercilessly showing every other orchestra in Asia (and quite a lot beyond) what good, in terms of orchestral playing, really means. There isn’t an orchestra within 6000 kilometres to equal the MPO in terms of quality, consistency, musicality and collective virtuosity. That enviable level of collective music-making has remained a constant throughout the previous 12 seasons and over the terms of three chief conductors. The foundation was laid in quite remarkable fashion by Kees Bakels who showed just what wonders could be performed by a pair of astute and profoundly perceptive ears. He was succeeded by Matthias Bamert who, despite a general lack of rapport with the players not helped by a rather dubious team in the management office, not only maintained standards but oversaw an imperceptible but undeniable increase in the MPO’s musical perceptiveness. This season marks the third and final one under the watchfulness of Claus Peter Flor. In many ways the most “hands on” of the three, he’s driven the orchestra onwards and upwards, combining Bakels’ ear for sound with Bamert’s brain for interpretation, and added his iron determination and instinctive judgement to give the orchestra a more sharp and incisive edge. When he leaves at the end of this season, it’s going to be a very serious loss to the orchestra, even if they don’t all realise it at the time.

The violins, possibly the weaker section in years gone by, had a clarity and precision on Saturday which is rare even in the very top flight orchestras; something potently obvious from the very opening of the Mozart Magic Flute Overture with which the programme began. What with Flor’s formidably focused direction (resorting to endearingly balletic steps in the Gounod Faust dances), the MPO’s matchless magnificence and Cabell’s awesome artistry, this may not have been, as one long-term subscriber enthused to me afterwards, “the best concert I have EVER attended”, but it was, without a shadow of doubt, the most wonderful Gala Concert so far in the MPO’s history.

That Saturday evening Gala was not, however, the official opening of the DFP season. That came five hours earlier when the Malaysian Philharmonic Youth Orchestra performed an “iConcert”. When I saw that title I wondered whether at long last, someone had managed to arrange podcasts of DFP concerts. Several years ago, MPYO Conductor, Kevin Field, and myself, spent well over a year establishing an internal broadcasting facility for all DFP concerts with a view to sending them out to the wider world as podcasts. We had the expertise and the technology, but it all came to nothing – if I remember correctly we were told that Malaysians aren’t interested in sound-only broadcasting and can only stomach TV shows; and with the best will in the world, DFP telecasts have yet to rise above the home-movie style. But podcasting is increasingly the fashion for communication today, so perhaps the time has come to rethink the policy.

So, if the “iConcert” wasn’t about technology, what was it about? It was – you’ve guessed it – all about Italy. An entire programme of Italian music, and not a single singer in sight. And who needed a singer when the orchestral playing was as good as it was on Saturday afternoon? There can be no denying that the MPYO is a remarkable phenomenon. When it was first mooted, I was not the only sceptic who couldn’t see how a country, renowned for churning out mechanical pianists by the container-load but without, before the MPO came along, any notable players or teachers of, say, double reed instruments, or percussionists capable of progressing beyond the drum kit or a pair of timps, could ever produce a youth orchestra able to show itself in public for many years to come. The sceptics were proved wrong and no amount of praise can adequately recognise the brilliant work done by Field in putting together such a superb orchestra; at its best it rivals many of the professional provincial orchestras in Europe and the US, and even at its worst, you never for a moment feel that this is due to youthful inexperience – just a bunch of very good players having a bad day. We had flashes of brilliance in what was a very taxing programme – incredible timpani playing in the Verdi Overture, a matchless clarinet in The Pines of Rome and a ravishing violin in the Albinoni Adagio – as well as rough patches, but even when things did not work quite as they might – the two Vivaldi concertos just didn’t come off to me (and that was by no means the fault of the soloists, and was more likely due to the decision to get the violinists to stand; acceptable for period-specialist ensembles but probably a tall order for a youth orchestra) – but Field kept it all together and the players showed remarkable stamina. The only real evidence of youthful inexperience came in their demeanour on stage – a little too much enthusiastic self-applause as if they were playing for themselves rather than the paying audience – but it has to be said the greatest departure from accepted etiquette came not from the players but from one of their MPO tutors who leapt up the stage stairs and dived through the stage door at the end of the first half, clearly feeling that the usual exits and entrances for non-performing members of the audience did not give him enough self-aggrandisement. The MPYO are tackling Mahler 1 at the end of the year. I think that’s a tall order, but I’ve been proved wrong before, and I’m looking forward to being proved wrong again.

And to add to the mix this weekend, we had the first organ recital of the newly-restored organ recital series; and how wonderful to see a capacity hall and have to send out some apologetic emails to angry customers who were turned away at the door because no tickets were left! An audience of six (it grew to 10 at one point) attended my pre-concert talk on Sunday in which I surveyed the coming season, but probably most people had already decided on what they are going to hear this year, so my work was superfluous. On the strength of everything musical heard over the weekend, this 13th season is going to be a real cracker.


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