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Malaysian Modernity.

John Robert Brown

We're listening to a drum solo in the middle of an orchestral piece. The drummer stands with his back to us, almost naked from the waist up. On his feet he wears white tabi, the Japanese split-toed shoes. He beats the single drum with a giant pair of parallel wooden beaters, as big as rolling pins. To do so he places his hands high above his head to reach the enormous wadaiko, the traditional Japanese drum about a metre in diameter, used at ceremonies to symbolise the unification of heaven and earth. Its barrel shape rests on a trestle. The head is in the vertical plane facing the audience. Eitetsu Hayashi is the drummer. Weaving a rhythmic spell, his playing swings energetically and elegantly.

On the stage between us and Hayashi sit more than a hundred musicians. Clearly enraptured by this performance, one of the front desk cellists is following Eitetsu Hayashi's performance intently. When he is resting during the drum solo, the cellist stomps his foot. He sways, nods and smiles appreciatively at Hayashi's cross rhythms, his use of hemiola, his anticipations and retardations, and his immense dynamic range.

When the orchestra re-enters, the tension is sustained by masterly orchestration that weaves a true twenty-first century texture, with well-rehearsed ensemble playing. At the end Hayashi comes to the front of the stage to take several bows. After a standing ovation he plays another drum solo as an encore.

The piece we've been enjoying is Hi-Ten-Yu ('Fly-Heaven-Play') by the Japanese composer Isao Matsushita. Despite the Japanese piece, Japanese soloist, and world-class standard of this orchestra in a luxurious South East Asian venue, we are not in Japan. We're hearing the Malaysian Philharmonic Orchestra (MPO), in Dewan Filharmonik Petronas, the inspiring classical concert hall at the foot of the Petronas Towers, in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia.

This is a visit of abundant surprises. A year has passed since my previous trip to Kuala Lumpur. Since then, a metropolitan monorail system has appeared. Most of the city centre sidewalks have been replaced, to a high standard. A dedicated express rail link - a completely new line - covers the 70km from the city centre to the new Kuala Lumpur International Airport (KLIA). It was opened in April. The pace of growth is astounding.

Change here is palpable. This is the city of the Petronas Twin Towers, at 452 metres the world's tallest office building, 10 metres higher than Chicago's Sears Tower. Conceived as recently as 1992, construction commenced in 1994. Completion was in 1997. A year later they opened the city's KLIA airport, one of the largest in the world.

Also in 1998 Dewan Filharmonik Petronas, a concert hall par excellence and home of the Malaysian Philharmonic, was opened at the foot of the towers. A superb 885-seat shoebox-shaped auditorium, it has a 2,997 pipe Klais concert organ with 44 stop tracker action and a state-of-the-art recording studio designed in Britain by Abbey Road Studios. The hall has two large rehearsal rooms, a third for section rehearsals, eleven individual practice rooms, two suites for conductors, a dressing room for the orchestra leader, two for soloists, and provision for ensembles.

The driving force behind these changes is the flourishing national oil and gas company, Petronas. Founded as recently as 1975, it is already the second largest company in Malaysia. Particularly gratifying is the enlightened policy of the company. Petronas has poured money into the city. They are about to own the Sepang Formula One race car circuit, and they have the Sauber-Petronas Formula One Racing Team. In the centre of Kuala Lumpur they have provided the beautiful shopping mall at the foot of the twin towers (occupants include Gucci, Tiffany's, Hermè#232;s, Mikimoto, Prada and Louis Vuitton), together with the concert hall. Most farsighted of all, under the leadership and enthusiasm of the Chairman of Petronas, Tan Sri Datuk Seri Azizan Zainul Abidin, the company funds the 105-strong MPO.

All these developments are surprises. But the biggest surprise of all is initially difficult to believe. It's the extraordinary acceptance and enthusiasm for the MPO's concerts of twentieth-century and contemporary music. Tonight's concert also includes Britten's The Prince and the Pagodas (Op 57), and Walton's Symphony No. 1. It's Friday, and the hall is almost full. The same programme in the same hall is sold out for tomorrow and Sunday.

"It's absolutely staggering that we have a following for all this new music," says MPO Associate Conductor Kevin Field. "It's very exciting performing a Brahms symphony to an audience one week - some of whom are hearing it for the first time - who will, in equal measure they will take on board a work by Thomas Adès or Hans Werner Henze the next. I've been very lucky. Part of my job here is to promote new music. Almost by default I've developed here what has been termed as Asia's leading New Music series. We're selling out late night concerts performing Henze's Clarinet Concerto, and commissioning art work on screen to go with it. We've commissioned a local composer, Sunetra Fernado, to write for Gamelan and MPO. Another Malaysian, Tazul Tajuddin, is writing a full-scale symphonic work to go into a Saturday contemporary concert that will feature works by Henri Dutilleaux, John Adams and Michael Torke. It's very exciting. The audience takes it. They listen to Schoenberg, to Turnage, Berio and Harbison; just everything. Next year we're focussing on the local composers alongside the more international and established."

Kevin has agreed to meet me for a chat. He turns up punctually and escorts me through the stringent security to reach the backstage area. It's a post 9/11 reminder that we are inside the tallest building in the world.

We take an afternoon cup of Earl Grey in the beautifully appointed conductor's room inside the concert hall complex on the first floor of the vast Petronas Towers podium. Facilities are superb, from ample basement car parking to a ramp, with lift and designated wheelchair positions in the stalls for customers with disabilities. A grand piano is provided inside the conductor's suite (of course). There is extensive use of beautiful local hardwoods for doors, wall panels and some floors. The auditorium has silent air conditioning, secure storage space for instruments, and a piano lift providing direct access on to the stage. Possible stage configurations include an optional orchestra pit. Out of sight, above a false screen, the upper ceiling of the auditorium can be adjusted to alter the volume of the hall. This is done by using seven motorised panels. From the stalls the acoustics are focussed and not too reverberant. Seating is comfortable. Sight lines are good. In short, the place is fabulous.

I'm curious about the musicians. Who are they? What are their work conditions and rewards? Kevin Field won't say how much his colleagues are paid, other than admitting that salaries are high by European standards. 'It's a good standard of living,' he admits. Recent job adverts in Classical Music give away his secret. The base for advertised tutti positions is US$42,361 (£29,717). When making comparisons, remember the relatively low costs of living in Malaysia. Of course, one can find high prices in midtown Kuala Lumpur hotels such as the Renaissance and Mandarin Oriental, but that's analogous to judging London prices by quoting those encountered along Park Lane at the Dorchester and the Park Lane Hilton. In more day-to-day KL shopping, a can of Coke costs forty pence, a modest cooked meal at midday is one pound. In Georgetown, Penang, I saw basic backpacker's lodgings at seven ringgits a night, which is £1.27. At the high end, a good room at the five-star Renaissance hotel in Kuala Lumpur costs £60.00 a night, basic. At these prices, $42,361 goes a long way. MPO musicians have eight weeks paid vacation, and work 140 hours per month. The present orchestra is truly international, drawn from twenty different countries. Players are relatively young. There are few, if any, grey heads.

"We have five Malaysians in the orchestra already, but that will change," says Kevin. "We've got another five on a scholarship scheme. They receive a fee and tuition. It's a stepping stone, to try to discourage them from going to Europe or America, to keep them here and nurture the talent. All musicians in the orchestra are required to take a student or two. We have a huge outreach programme, accessing about 6,000 kids a year. Recently we took the orchestra out to a school, Alice Smith International School, where we gave three one-hour concerts to one thousand kids from the Klang valley. These are people who have probably only ever heard a symphony orchestra on the soundtrack to a movie. The children come out of Kampongs, traditional villages. Some have never seen escalators before and they come and hear Firebird. It blows them away!

We do school residencies sending out small teams from the MPO. Two to fifteen players go into the jungle, into villages, and take improvisation and composition workshops based on whatever skills they have. We send our players to Ipoh, Penang, Melaka and Johur Bahru, coaching school orchestras and string and wind bands, whatever they have. We took a group to Ipoh and played Stravinsky's Soldiers Tale, Michael Torke's Yellow Pages, and finished with John Adams' Chamber Symphony, in a hotel ballroom. In the same programme children from Ipoh performed their own version of the Adams, following a week of sessions with a small MPO.

Unless a school is a Project School there is little if any musical education - as we know it - in Malaysia. There is at primary and there is, of course, in international and private schools. It's been said that we're a support for that. It's a huge challenge to offer as much education outreach as possible. We do a lot of ground work with the schools' teachers to help get those students up to a level that will in the long term benefit the MPO.

The Malays are inherently artistic. They are artists, dancers, singers, and musicians. It's in their nature, their grace, their warmth. You can see it in their dress sense with the fabrics and the colours. You can see it in the theatres and art galleries here - and the food, even. When they are ultimately artistic by nature, it's then interesting to see them 'forced' through professions such as accountancy, law, science and engineering. Persuading a parent that their child has a potential career in the arts as a musician is sometimes met with a smile that suggests: "Not before they get a degree in law they won't!"

As far as concerts and the MPO are concerned, there isn't a problem with New Music. I came here thinking, 'How am I going to do this?' I write a little welcome in the programme, and there's no problem. To work in this environment is very exciting. It's wonderful. When I tell the publishers - Universal, Booseys and Schotts - what we're doing here, and they see the list, they are staggered.

Strategically, the New Music is done quite well. The New Music performances happen as midweek seventy-minute 'rush hour' concerts at six p.m. We're able to support the admission costs. It's a ten or fifteen-ringgit ticket, £2.00 or £3.00. We play four or five works at most. In the next concert we're doing one 55-minute piece, Jonathan Harvey's Bhakti, for chamber ensemble and a quadrophonic tape. Normally there's a handful of styles, maybe a theme. I'm not too worried about that. I just want to present as much variety to the audience as possible. Introduce the music and musicians, have a bit of a chat, bring them into it. Get them involved and play the music."

Enthusiasm is endearing. To me there's no doubt that Kevin Field's personal attitude has contributed to the success of the New Music programme with the MPO. Kevin is from Britain, from the English Midlands. He studied at the Royal Academy of Music, and worked as sub-principal percussionist with the Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra for eight years. Appointed Associate Conductor of the MPO in 1999, he made his debut in May that year, standing in for Andrew Litton. Recently he's been invited to conduct both the Tasmanian Symphony and the West Australian Symphony in Perth.

What are the secrets of the MPO's success with attracting a large audience for contemporary music? The benevolence of the investment of a company such as Petronas is certainly a very good start, but not the whole story. The midweek rush hour concert is a good idea. Keeping it short is also wise, allowing attenders to avoid rush hour traffic but still have the majority of the evening remaining after the concert. Very low ticket prices are attractive. Communication must also be a factor, talking to the audience.

"I'm not the only one to do it," says Kevin Field. "It's not unique, but it enhances the atmosphere. It breaks down any resistance, that invisible curtain that comes down between my back and the front rows of the cellos and violins and the audience. We have a lot of first-timers. I think people coming to concerts are sometimes a little apprehensive, a little nervous. If we can put them at their ease, bring them into what's happening, then I'm all for having a little chat."

It's time for our little chat to end. Before I leave the building, I visit the box office to buy a couple of tickets.

There's a couple in front of me enquiring about concert etiquette, asking about what they should wear. They are being told, in a friendly way, that for this evening a long-sleeved batik or lounge suit is appropriate. No jeans, T-shirts, sneakers or slippers are allowed at any time, and that no babies and no children under eight will be admitted.

I've never witnessed such an exchange in Britain. But then, there's a lot in KL that's new to me. That's the point of coming here.

This article first appeared in Classical Music magazine. Not to be used or quoted from for any purpose without permission.
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