Malaysia Merican, Liszt, Brahms, Dvořák: Ciarán McAuley & Mustafa Fuzer Nawi (conductors), Malaysian Philharmonic Orchestra & National Symphony Orchestra, Petronas Philharmonic Hall, Kuala Lumpur, 22.08.2015 (RP)
Merican: Tanah Pusaka, arr. by Vivian Chua
Liszt: Les Préludes, S. 97
Brahms: Variations on a Theme of Joseph Haydn, Op. 56a
Dvořák: Symphony No. 9 in E minor, Op. 95, “From the New World”
Concert halls are generally grand architectural statements. Kuala Lumpur’s Petronas Philharmonic Hall (PPH) is second to none in this regard, nestled as it is at the base of the Petronas Towers, which were the tallest buildings in the world from 1998 to 2004 and remain the tallest twin towers on earth. Seating 885 people, the PPH was Malaysia’s first purpose-built concert hall. Its concealed, movable ceiling can be adjusted to suit the acoustical needs of ensembles of all sizes. The hall also serves as a recording venue, which was designed by Abbey Roads Studios. The PPH may be the only concert hall in the world with two racing cars suspended from the ceiling in the lobby ̶ fitting, as Petronas is Malaysia’s state-owned oil and gas company and the sponsor of the Malaysia Philharmonic Orchestra (MPO), which calls the PPH home.
Founded in 1998, the MPO is made up of musicians from 25 countries and has toured throughout the Asia Pacific region. Ciarán McAuley, the MPO’s Resident Conductor, served as Donald Runnicles’s assistant at the BBC Scottish Symphony and is a finalist in the 2015 German Conductor Prize. The MPO was joined in this concert by the National Symphony Orchestra of Malaysia (NSO) and Mustafa Fuzer Nawi, its Chief Conductor and Music Director. The NSO has a strong commitment to Malaysian music and musicians. Mustafa, one of Malaysia’s leading violinists and conductors, has led the NSO on tours of Asia and Europe.
The concert opened with an arrangement of Tanah Pusaka by Vivian Chua, a Malaysian music educator, composer and arranger. This song was composed by Tan Sri Ahmad Merican, a major figure in Malaysia’s musical development, who is still active at the age of 91. Written in 1963, Tanah Pusaka is a patriotic song extolling Malaysia’s racial diversity and tolerance. Chua’s arrangement was punctuated by rippling trumpet solos and scintillating rhythms in the percussion. It does neither the composer nor the arranger an injustice to compare it to the best movie music out there. These musicians are tops at pops.
Ciarán McAuley led the players in Liszt’s Les Préludes and Brahms’s Variations on a Theme of Joseph Haydn. Les Préludes, the most famous of Liszt’s 12 symphonic poems, is a grand work, full of excitement. McAuley captured the grandeur and energy, but could not reign in the trumpets. They had a brilliant sound and played with precision and obvious passion, but with bells pointed straight at the audience, they were just too loud. Balance was restored to a degree in the Brahms. Each of the eight variations was crafted with care and attention to detail. The introduction of the theme in the woodwinds accompanied by pizzicato strings revealed McAuley’s command of detail. The sixth variation starts with the horns playing a relatively straightforward statement of the theme and, as in the Liszt, they displayed a beautiful, liquid tone. The piece concludes with the theme played in the original form culminating in a triumphant fortissimo ̶ no challenge whatsoever, with the trumpets again giving it their blazing all.
When they returned to the stage after the intermission, there were some new faces in the brass, woodwinds and percussion sections. The large string section appeared to be the same players as in the first half of the concert. The most notable change, however, was Mustafa’s presence on the podium. Abetted by different trumpet players, positioned on an angle, he led a well-balanced performance of Dvořák’s “New World” symphony. Mustafa approached the symphony as a series of well-crafted phrases, marked by a sensitivity to dynamics and tempi, perhaps at the expense of an all-encompassing, expansive vision of the entire work. This approach was at its most effective in the Largo, which featured the stunningly beautiful playing of Denis Simonnet, the MPO’s Principal English Horn. Dvořák’s melodies and sonorities, which so effectively conjure up the spirit and sounds of America, resonated with the Malaysian audience.
Mustafa returned to lead the orchestra in a setting of Jeritan Batinku by P. Ramlee, a multi-talented Malaysian film actor, director, singer, songwriter, composer and producer. He died prematurely at the age of 44 in 1973, and is an icon of Malay popular culture. The lyrics capture the screams of a lover’s anguished soul longing for a lost love. As with Tanah Pusaka, the audience was treated to a richly orchestrated, vibrant rendition of this tearjerker of a song.
The emphasis that Malaysia and other Asian countries places on symphonic music is impressive. It is not their musical heritage. Scant resources that could easily be deployed elsewhere are instead used to inculcate the beauties and powers of western classical music in their societies. I am not one who believes that the future of classical music rests with Asia, but it is being transformed here.