MPO Chamber Tour

Long-established orchestras do this sort of thing as a matter of course, and the Malaysian Philharmonic has certainly sent small groups of its musicians around the country over the past 10 years to give chamber concerts in places where full-scale symphony orchestras cannot reach. But the Chamber Tour which members of the MPO are about to undertake is a significant milestone in the orchestra’s history. It marks, in effect, the first practical manifestation of what I described elsewhere as the MPO’s re-branding exercise; moving from being an international orchestra to a national one, with a deliberate intention of serving the wider community in Malaysia above and beyond its desire to stand alongside the Big Boys of symphonic music.

In a wonderfully warm and perceptive introduction to the first concert outside KL in the MPO’s chamber tour, a member of the Negeri Sembilan royal family welcomes the MPO with the observation that “for centuries, concerts like these were a regular fixture in the great European courts where music was an integral part of life”. This ties in rather neatly with one of the purposes behind the original creation of the MPO; namely to be the possession of a wealthy master (in this case an oil company) which could use the orchestra to show its cultural and aesthetic credentials to international competitors (and potential customers). That’s long been forgotten in a sea of politically-inspired recriminations about expenditure on minority interests at a time when rising oil prices were causing real problems to the ordinary folk of Malaysia. I feel very strongly indeed that the MPO management did not handle those criticisms at all well and, for a time, they clearly lost direction and focus. A few seasons of aimless meandering around not sure whether to call itself an international-class orchestra or a drain on the resources of a nation which didn’t really want it, saw morale drop and some fine people leave. But an inspired new management team and a lot of fresh blood has given the orchestra a focus again, and this seems to be the first concrete manifestation of the new-style MPO.

What has always been forgotten by those critics who should have known better – largely expatriate Malaysian musicians who resented seeing money they feel should have been their birthright spent on bringing foreigners into shape Malaysia’s classical music identity – is that before the MPO and its performing home the DFP came along, there was nothing. As a long-time resident of Malaysia, here long before the MPO had even been thought of, I am well aware that those few classical music performances which did exist pre-1998 were unutterably bad; there’s no other word for it. How I used to cringe at dire performances, which would have shamed any UK infant’s school orchestra, and dread the plastic chairs, the persistent talking and the background noise which were an accepted part of any musical performance. How I shuddered at ABRSM High Scorers’ concerts when young people, possibly hoping for professional careers overseas, were forced to play in an environment which was a cross between a bus shelter and a highway rest area (no wonder so few of them ever came back). On those very few occasions when professional orchestras or chamber ensembles arrived (usually en route to Australia and with a view to having a warm up before an un-critical audience) they gave ropey performances in ropier places – often hotel ballrooms with the piped music still playing. I recall a visit by a London orchestra to one of our pride-and-joy Hilton hotels in the late 1980s and having to argue for hours with reception to turn the music off in the ballroom for the concert. The response was, of course, that “if we do that, people will complain”. Indeed, one had similar problems when the MPO first went to Kuching; on that occasion it was the security guards’ walkie-talkies which were obliged to crackle throughout a concert. If nothing else, the MPO has caused the climate to change and people in Malaysia are beginning to know how to listen, and are realising that listening requires concentration, and that concentration leads to appreciation. It’s unlikely that the audiences over the chamber tour will be quite so willing to accept the kind of bad listening environments that were the norm 20 years ago.

But in its history, the MPO has never really done much to expand into the community. True, the education departments have taken in schools, hospitals and the like, but the orchestra itself hasn’t done much in the way of going out and playing to ordinary people. The facilities aren’t there, of course; but why not? If the MPO went out more, the demand would grow and the facilities would follow; look at China where towns are crawling over themselves to have new concert-halls built (all a little daft since orchestras are abysmal and audiences little more than moronic). So this chamber tour is really establishing the new thinking; that the MPO is not confined to the DFP and is willing and able to go anywhere in Malaysia.

Most exciting of all is the fact that it’s not Haydn or Mozart string quartets which are going out on this tour, but something far more intriguing; the kind of programmes which would draw musicians in from far and wide, so rarely is it heard even in the great concert halls of the world. The programmes avoid the Classics like the plague, the nearest thing we get to standard chamber repertoire being Schumann’s Piano Quintet. Instead we have chamber concertos by Shostakovich and Bach, not to mention a Concerto by Vincent d’Indy which has been all but forgotten over the past decades – indeed only one recording is available, and that on a very rare label indeed which you would be lucky to find outside eastern Europe. We have some Latin-American jazz, some pastiche-Baroque, some rarefied Prokofiev and an absolutely mind-boggling selection of 20th century pieces based on Ligeti’s weird Musica Ricercare which includes some Steve Reich and a movement from Messiaen’s Quartet for the End of Time which has been banned on no less than three occasions from the stage of DFP. This isn’t easy-going music for the mass appeal, but innovative and exciting programming which shows that, at long last, the MPO planners have realised that the Malaysian audience don’t have preconceptions; they just like to hear good music well played and, for them, Mozart is no more attractive than Messiaen, Ligeti or Steve Reich.

My hope is that this chamber tour (and as 15-16 players are involved, it’s not quite as chamber as all that) will serve its purpose, reveal that the MPO is serious about its commitment to the people of Malaysia and, along the way, do nothing to undermine its aspirations to stand on the world stage alongside the likes of the LPO, the NYPO and, even, the BPO.


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