Philharmonic Orchestra nothing but elitist extravaganza


Modified 6 Jun 2008, 8:28 am

I refer to the letter Philharmonic Orchestra beneficial in the long run .

I believe that great art of any culture should be encouraged and supported. However, when funds for the arts are limited as they are the world over, these should be prioritised first and foremost to develop local and indigenous artistic expression. This calls into question the continuing raison d'etre of the Malaysian Philharmonic Orchestra where 96% of the musicians are not Malaysian, even after spending RM500 million over the last 10 years.

Clearly, despite all the rhetoric of developing local talent , the MPO has been a signal failure. It stands to reason that if there has actually been a contribution to developing Malaysian talent by MPO over the last 10 years, the composition of Malaysians in the orchestra would not have remained static at 4% after all these years. This is further corroborated by the fact that resident Malaysian conductor - Ooi Chean See - reportedly resigned after years of being undermined by the MPO management and European music directors.

The reality is that the MPO is an elitist extravaganza by Petronas which has no real desire to 'Malaysianise' the orchestra. They have toured China and Australia at enormous expense without any apparent realisation that having a European conductor conducting an orchestra called Malaysian with a 4% Malaysian participation is a national disgrace and insults the intelligence of the Chinese and Australians.

The ridiculous notion that one has to wear a suit or formal dress to attend the evening concerts betrays this elitist and 'exclusive' mindset. It is so far removed from the ideals, humanity and spirituality in the music of the great composers they play. The three European conductors who helm the orchestra are second-echelon practitioners at best in the world of classical music, but have been touted as 'world class' by Petronas and are paid a king's ransom.

Why should anyone who is sitting pretty want the status quo to change? I believe the problem lies with the management who do not have confidence in artistic planning and direction. They have devolved total control to a foreign music agency and to the European music directors who are milking Petronas for all it is worth.

Petronas should take a leaf out of the Singapore Symphony Orchestra's book. Its musicians are mainly Asian and they perform Western music to high standards. They even have a recording contract with the respected Swedish recording company BIS. The Singapore government did not fund the orchestra at its inception. It was formed primarily by local classical music lovers who raised funds individually and through business sponsorship.

As there were not enough local musicians to create an orchestra of a respectable standard, they decided to recruit from the Asean region as well as Europe. It had the goodwill of the Singapore government but it was made clear that they did not want to encourage a 'subsidy mentality' for an entertainment art form, particularly when it was mainly the privy of the rich and educated classes.

The Singapore government's only concession was the use of the Victoria Concert Hall with nominal rent charged to the management of the orchestra. There is no surprise why the SSO is now overwhelmingly Singaporean. It was founded by locals (expatriates included) with local enthusiasm and commitment. There was therefore a natural impetus to have local talent as far as possible.

Equally important was the presence of local music academies. These are funded by the Singapore government and many of the staff in these academies have been trained in the most prestigious music academies in Europe and USA and provide excellent training for talented local musicians.

Petronas could also learn from the nature of musical funding in Venezuela. A government funded foundation oversees musical education throughout the country. In a country of only 22 million, there are 125 youth orchestras, 57 children's orchestras and 30 adult symphony orchestras. Ninety percent of the musicians come from a poor socio-economic background. The flagship ensemble is the Simon Bolivar Youth Orchestra which is considered to be one of the leading orchestras in the world.

Gustavo Dudamel - its stellar conductor - is only 27 and was a product of the system. He grew up in a deprived area and was grateful for the musical education he received which he freely admits may have prevented him from entering a life of drugs and crime. What a pleasant irony that Simon Rattle, conductor of the great Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra, has immense praise for the Venezuelan musical education system, calling it ' the most important thing happening in classical music anywhere in the world'.

If Petronas is sincere about developing local music talent and about having a truly Malaysian orchestra then it should set up a Performing Arts Academy and recruit musicians from the MPO to be faculty members. Talented musicians from all over Malaysia should be funded if they apply to join the academy.

If need be, outstanding musicians should be given scholarships to further their training overseas in the world's leading conservatoires and encouraged to come back and serve in the orchestra. With high salaries and unbeatable terms on offer, this should be not be a problem. If will only be a matter of a few years that the majority of the musicians in the orchestra will be Malaysian.

Petronas and the MPO must really make amends for the wasted 10 years. It should stop its selfish policy of not allowing its musicians to freely associate with local musicians or to take part in local productions. This is surely the best way to uplift standards in local productions. This is the kind of 'outreach' which is beneficial to Malaysians and not MPO's own cosmetic 'Outreach' programme which is a self-serving publicity exercise.

Clearly its concert schedule will have to be reorganised. Currently there are just too many concerts, some of which are poorly attended, particularly Kevin Field's self-serving 'Avant-garde' predilection.

Avant-garde classical music has a minuscule following even in the West, such that composers of this kind of music rarely get funding or have their music performed. How fortunate that the Malaysian Philharmonic is funding and performing such unpopular music with no local resonance or relevance on a regular basis.

At the end of the year, Field will even be running an International Composing Competition , with international judges brought in, with the prize money in the order of some RM100,000 being offered, all funded by Petronas of course. What a pity that Malaysian conductor Ooi Chean See was not given a similar opportunity to raise her international profile or to develop in her career whilst at the MPO.

As a further confirmation of MPO's continuing misdirection and unconscionable extravagance, MPO is performing Beethoven's 9 'Choral' Symphony. This will be the swan song of current chief conductor Matthias Bamert who is also the artistic director. This mighty symphony is a landmark in musical history and was Beethoven's plea for the ' brotherhood of man' .

In a country such as ours which is culturally, religiously and racially divided, a performance involving Malaysians of all races singing Schiller's 'Ode to Joy' with its message of brotherhood and love would have had great resonance and meaning. But this is lost on the likes of Bamert who has decided hire the 100-member Melbourne Symphony Orchestra Chorus and four foreign soloists for the performance.

Taking into account the cost of air travel, hotel and professional fees, the total bill of flying down the chorus and soloists is in the region of RM700,000. Given the cost of running the orchestra is about RM800,000 per week, the expenditure for Bamert's farewell extravaganza is of the order of RM1.5 million. There will only be two concerts in this small concert hall and maximal takings from box office sales will be only RM120,000.

Such is the nature of Petronas' fiscal responsibility in a time of economic uncertainty and containment. The idea that a country of 25 million people which has the Twin Towers and has sent a Malaysian into space cannot produce a choir of sufficient standard to sing with the Malaysian Philharmonic Orchestra is nothing short of a national insult and tragedy.

Claus Peter Flor will be the new chief conductor in the next season and it is hoped that he will make decisions in the artistic planning which will benefit and recognise Malaysian talent. The elitist and mercenary nature of music-making which characterised the MPO in the past can no longer be countenanced.

It remains to be seen whether Flor will not object to the formation of a Petronas Performing Arts Academy with the aim of nurturing Malaysian talent for the express purpose of developing an orchestra true to its name.

Quo Vadis MPO ?