A Bought Orchestra?

Blogs – and this one is no exception – are not for those in search of reliable facts, incontrovertible truths or balanced arguments. Responsible bloggers (and I hope I’m one) do try to check their facts, write responsibly and be as accurate as they can while expressing opinions which are entirely and singularly personal. But, without the filters of sub-editors, editors, legal advisers (a body of people to whom much of my copy seems to have been sent in the past) and, most especially, a critically-alert and educated readership which is part and parcel of writing for the print (and broadcast) media, a blog can never be quite so reliable. Decades of working as a journalist, writer and broadcast script-writer have made the double-checking of facts and careful balancing of arguments second nature, and although the freedom of the blog allows me to say things I would never commit to the discipline of print, I hope I keep a certain standard of decency and accuracy in what I write. I don’t expect it of all the others out there, but I do expect from certain quarters, so when I was directed to a blog from the Daily Telegraph I assumed I’d find truth, accuracy and decency, even if I also found a strong personal opinion.

(For the benefit of the vast majority in south east Asia who live in ignorance of such matters, I should here explain why the Daily Telegraph would lead me to expect high standards. Interviewed on television recently the actor Harrison Ford said of American breakfast television news that “you can always find a news programme telling you what you want to hear”. The British press is much the same. There are numerous different daily papers each offering up the same news but slanting their reporting and their comments in a myriad ways to cater for most levels of political acuity, cultural background, social standing and intelligence. There are broadsheets (offering expansive and detailed writing), tabloids (punchy and dealing primarily in headlines) and the ones in the middle (I forget what these are called, but titles like The Guardian take this form), there are those assuming a predilection amongst the readership for liberal thought, for firm adherence to the establishment ideas and for those who like to see naked and buxom flesh intertwined with headlines.  In short, British newspapers provide news in just about any coating you want.)

Amongst the UK press, the Daily Telegraph has long been my paper of choice. I don’t side totally with its politics, but I am more in tune with its opinions than any others, I relish the broadsheet layout and I adore its focus on literate and educated writing. I assumed those standards percolated through to its bloggers. So I was amazed to read in one Daily Telegraph blog something which, while neither inaccurate nor dishonest, struck me as at the very least disingenuous.

Writing about the Singapore Symphony’s recent tour of London, the blog (by Damian Thompson) included this amazing pair of sentences; “I suggest that the SSO under its Chinese-born maestro Lan Shui could become one of the great orchestras of the 21st century. To be fair, so could its regional rival, the Malaysian Philharmonic – but the latter was bought rather than grown, if you get my drift.” Yes, Mr Thompson, I get your drift, and it’s wildly, wildly off course.

We’ll come to the astonishing claim about the SSO in a moment, but what shocked me was that bit about the MPO being bought, and the obvious insinuation that, because of this, the orchestra’s musical worth is diminished. What bloody rot! What professional orchestra has not been bought? Do the musicians of the SSO pay their own way? Do the Berlin Phil, the Vienna Phil, the New York Phil, the LSO, the LPO, the BBCSO play for free? Of course they don’t. Every professional orchestra comprises players who have been bought, in the sense that someone has given money to pay their fees/salaries. It might be an airline, it might be a broadcaster, it might be a national government, it might be an imprisoned Canadian fraudster or weirdly reclusive twin-brothers (sorry to bring up old sores, Mr Thompson), or it might be an oil company. Sorry to disabuse the Daily Telegraph blogging community, but orchestral musicians don’t do it for love, they do it for money and very few of them really care where it comes from.

The insinuation is obviously that the MPO is somehow a fraudulent orchestra; its players don’t come from Malaysia and have only been enticed to Malaysia by vast sums of petro-dollars. But aren’t English football clubs the same? Are there any Mancunians in Manchester United, west-Londoners in Chelsea or cockneys in West Ham (I don’t think there are any English either, but I don’t follow football and care so little about it I can’t be bothered to check my facts), so why adopt a different standard when it comes to orchestras? If Manchester benefits by having a gum-chewing Scot and 12 foreigners earning vast sums of cash running about on its ground once or twice a week, surely you can’t begrudge the benefits that befall Kuala Lumpur from having a coffee-drinking German and 100 foreigners playing on its stage five or six times a week, each earning a fraction of what a single Manchester United player does.

There is also the suggestion that, while the SSO has “grown” to achieve the level of excellence Damian Thompson observed in it, the MPO was born great, which further devalues its current claim to greatness. Many who are born great have to work hard to live up to expectations, whilst those who achieve greatness have none of that kind of pressure on them. That the MPO has managed to stay a great orchestra even after some of the appalling things it’s been through (periods of bad management, unfortunate personnel choices, problems with Music Directors, not to mention political and community opposition) surely only legitimises the initial greatness which Kees Bakels created with a bit of help from Malaysia’s off-shore oil reserves.

Damien Thompson attended the SSO concert in London’s Royal Festival Hall last month and was clearly impressed. So, I am pleased to say, were most of the London critical fraternity. I was supposed to be there but, at the last minute, family issues kept me away. However, long conversations with colleagues in London who did attend attest to the fact that the SSO clearly raised its game.  Most I spoke to would never go so far as to suggest it was one of the world’s potential great orchestras, but clearly the SSO has it in it to do rather better than its Singapore norm. 

Once an orchestra can be great in the eyes of its domestic audience – as the MPO undoubtedly is concert after concert – it is well on its way to being a great orchestra in the eyes of the world.  But let’s not forget that greatness comes with a price, and to achieve greatness at home and abroad does mean your players, in effect, need to be bought.  And that’s a truth no blogger can deny.


7 Responses to “A Bought Orchestra?”

  1. 1 Chang Tou Liang (Singapore)
    November 15, 2010 at 1:11 pm

    Great to hear your side of the story, Marc!

    For these pair of ears, the MPO has always been the greater of the two orchestras separated by the Johore Straits. No doubt about it, every trip up the North-South Highway has got me salivating about the MPO and its abilities. I love the SSO too, and am sometimes rather critical of it when it underperforms, and the usual management woes (Malaysia does not have the monopoly of idiocy and incompetence). But what makes me doubly proud is it took us 31 years of hard graft, and not a little money (but no petrodollars), to achieve what we did. 70% of our musicians are Singaporeans, naturalised Singaporeans and Permanent Residents. The pay isn’t great but many stuck at it, best personified by Co-Leader Lynnette Seah who has been sitting on the same chair for 31 years! That’s what we are proud of, and I think the Brits who attended it also shared that pride of an Asian orchestra that looks at least some part Asian. All that is not to denigrate the still-very-young MPO, which has already achieved more in a shorter space of time (12 years!). Someday the MPO will look more Malaysian and will definitely get its bragging rights when it eventually performs in London or the BBC Proms.

    In the meantime, Fulham can be proud of itself even if Chelsea is their next door neighbour!

    • 2 stringman
      November 15, 2010 at 4:53 pm

      There you have it in a nutsehll! The MPO doesn’t LOOK Asian! We have dedicated the past 12 years of our lives to Malaysia and many of us are now Malaysian Permanent Residents. We’re sorry that, because of an accident of birth, we weren’t born to look Asian, but I betcha there are more members of the MPO who consider themsleves a permanent fixture in Malaysia than there were in the SSO when it was twelve. Andwho’s to tell whether there aren’t as many native Malaysians in the MPO as there are native Singaporeans in the SSO.

      • 3 peterrid
        November 16, 2010 at 6:49 am

        I was a Brit who enjoyed the Singapore orchestra concert in the Festival Hall, but I enjoyed it because their playign was lovely. Great Stuff! Our orchestras are full of Chinese faces, so we don’t notice or care what race the players are. On the train going home I overheard a couple saying how much they liked the orchestra and that it was obviously from Singapore because there were as many europeans in it as Chinese! 🙂

  2. 4 MPOfan
    November 15, 2010 at 10:50 pm

    I have been a long time subscriber of the MPO, and you should have heard the passion they played with this past weekend….

    … at ‘Family Fun Day’ concerts……

    …..only hours after discovering that all of their names have all been suddenly removed from the MPO website…

    …..along with the link describing the history of the MPO……

    ….and only weeks after learning that their CEO, Puan Karina Ridzuan, who had been doing many fantastic and ground-breaking things with the MPO over the past year and a half was suddenly and very unexpectedly ‘re-assigned’ by the former and less popular CEO of MPO, Juniwati Hussin, now vice president of Human Relations for Petronas……

    …. only weeks after learning that Puan Karina’s replacement would be a longtime friend of Juniwati’s with no former arts management background…. and no interest in even coming to observe a single rehearsal….. or performance of MPO…… but plenty of experience with firing people and implementing corporate ‘exit strategies’..

    … only days after the entire orchestra being called up to the 41st floor and being told that the random re-assignment of a person who is doing great work in a certain position is ‘normal’… and that the ‘party is over’, ‘it can’t be business as usual’ and that the musicians need to focus on music and ‘butt out’ of corporate matters….

    ….only days after learning that their personnel manager had been unceremoniously fired and his computer confiscated for investigation after 12 years of tireless devotion to the MPO……

    ….days after their development director and DFP Director of Operations were mysteriously ‘suspended’ (and their names also immediately removed from the website)……

    … days after learning that their newly hired General Manager had also resigned…..

    … only minutes after seeing their music director mysteriously lurking around the DFP staring down people in the orchestra from the wings…… when he wasn’t sighted palling around with Juniwati and the new CEO, Nor Raina Abdullah (Look her up on Facebook…. just don’t mention the MPO! http://www.facebook.com/people/Nor-Raina-Abdullah/1376481793)

    Fear not members and fans of the SSO. It’s no secret that the MPO is despised by many Malaysians, but now it apparently is by it’s very own board members! The members have all made KL their home for the sole purpose of spreading the joys of symphonic music with Malaysians and helping to create dreams for Malaysia’s youth while following their own. For this, they are now suddenly being run out of town like criminals…. by the very people that have been employing them for 12 years…. or… to be more specific… by the very person who woefully mismanaged them for a few years (and then got a promotion!).

    Not to worry… they will gone soon, and Malaysia can get back to the business of ensuring that they remain third world. The late Tan Sri Azizan would roll over in his grave if he knew of the gross negligence and disrespect with which his dream of Malaysian Philharmonic Orchestra is being handled.


    • 5 Very Curious
      December 1, 2010 at 3:12 pm

      WoW! I have been a very long subscriber and great admire of the Malaysian Philharmonic Orchestra. I am very concerned after seeing your post. By the way, how did you come upon the information above?
      P.S.: I always find that the Former CEO, Puan Juniwati, is a very affable and extremely likable woman. I would never refer to her as ‘less popular’.

  3. 6 Steven Retallick
    November 15, 2010 at 11:18 pm

    When the MPO played its concert tour of Australia, I well remember one of the reviews of the Sydney concert began – I’m paraphrasing – “If Petronas was going to buy an orchestra, they bought a good one…” The same illogical subtext as in the example Marc gave, disguised by a veneer of saccharin

  4. 7 MalaysianMpoFan
    November 16, 2010 at 1:32 am

    As my name shows, I’m obviously going to be a little bit biased. =P Also would like to state that I mean no offense to anyone and thank the above guys for putting some great points to think about unlike the usual empty (and more often than not, uneducated) praises or criticisms of concerts.

    I think the simple fact is, no matter what it took (like “petro-dollars”, extra cents on malaysian taxpayers, white faces on stage, unlimited controversy about those white faces since MPO was started just to name a few things), Mpo usually puts on much better and far more impressive concerts than Sso. Orchestras exist for the music after all, not politics or patriotism: the end product is what’s important. Everything else including the manufacturing process is really secondary.

    For me it’s just a shame to know that Sso waits till they are continents away before performing their best. 😦 I never doubted they had in them to play impressively; they have many fine players inside the orchestra.

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