Underwhelmed by the Malaysian Philharmonic Orchestra (MPO)

(Photos by Pramyth Abeysekra)

After two and a half years in Malaysia, finally watched a performance by the Malaysian Philharmonic Orchestra (MPO). The 2016/17 season opening concert “A Musical Journey in Anime”, which incidentally was false advertising given that only half the programme was from Joe Hisaishi’s anime repertoire.

How was the performance? In one word, underwhelming. It was nice to attend an orchestra performance after a long time and listen to some familiar and much loved tunes but for the money spent and the hype around the orchestra, it was quite disappointing.

While sounding really good as an ensemble, mainly thanks to the string section, the solo sections were alarmingly shaky (with exceptions like the principal violin, cello and trumpet). A combination of jarringly wrong notes, issues in tempo and lack of synchronization between instruments, especially in the woodwind section and the violas, all left me scratching my head given the rave reviews I often see for the MPO.

One of the reasons is probably the international boycott of MPO auditions since 2012 due to the management’s poor treatment of musicians. This means the orchestra no longer attracts great talent and probably causes friction within the orchestra as well resulting in little chemistry among players.

I was also curious about the fact that even 18 years after its inception, the MPO is Malaysian only by name. The orchestra comprises of musicians from 25 countries around the world and while that is impressive (at least on paper), one wonders whether the MPO and its education and outreach programmes for nearly two decades have made any contribution towards nurturing and launching new cohorts of musicians given the tiny ratio of local musicians to foreign (at least as far as I could observe) in the orchestra. And I have no idea whether there are set ratios for the composition of the orchestra but lack of local talent is an overused rationale 18 years later. While there are other local orchestras, the MPO remains the most prominent, prestigious and well funded ensemble in the country. There is apparently also an MPO youth orchestra but from what I read in the concert programme, they have not toured since 2012.

The MPO is also expensive. There are concessions for students but apart from that, the target audience seems to be people rich enough to afford the highly priced seasonal passes and tickets (which is probably true of many orchestras around the world except most performances are on a much higher level). I may have been a regular orchestra goer in Sri Lanka (when I was not performing) but in Malaysia I definitely cannot do the same, even with increased earning capacity. We paid RM 162 per ticket for mid-level seats (for comparison, almost LKR 6,000 per ticket) and while that seems reasonable for the quality of the venue and the projected caliber of the orchestra, it’s definitely not worth the actual performance we saw.

So yeah, underwhelming and slightly confusing is what I’d call this first MPO experience. Would I go back? Maybe if there are interesting programmes in the future or irresistible guest performers but otherwise this orchestra comes across as a waste of money in pseudo-intellectualism which I suppose is not my problem if you have the money for it 😋

PS. Maybe due to how powerful Petronas is (the MPO’s principal donor), I couldn’t find much writing on or reviews of the orchestra so these are purely my own observations and hypotheses except for the international boycott and mistreatment of players which is pretty well documented including by the International Federation of Musicians.

Anyway, here’s a cheery (albeit misleading) poster of Totoro to balance the negatives

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10 thoughts on “Underwhelmed by the Malaysian Philharmonic Orchestra (MPO)

  1. You nailed it, 100% accurate, the management of Raina and Tim are terrible, filters down to a product that you witnessed first hand. Since 2012 and its firings, over a dozen more players have felt the unfair hand of the puppet masters in Petronas….misleading, confusing, and a general lack of human compassion is the managements slogan!

  2. You might be surprised by just how international all major orchestras in the world are. Simply being the “Malaysian” philharmonic shouldn’t mean most people will be Malaysian. Auditions across the world are based on musicality, not nationality.

    1. Hi. I was not contending that 🙂 I was merely observing how the numbers have not grown but shrunk in terms of Malaysian musicians in the MPO and thinking through possible reasons.

  3. Thank you Sachini for your frank – and accurate – comments. The actions of MPO management have indeed left them very short of talent to fill the vacancies, and with a 4-year long boycott from virtually every musicians’ union abroad. And in four years, absolutely nothing has changed 😉 The root cause of the disgraceful reputation, their CEO, Nor Raina, (whose appointment almost immediately resulted in the ongoing legal action and boycott) makes one wonder at the oil company’s reasons for placing and keeping her there. It defies any explanation, other than blatant recklessness and desire to burn the organisation to the ground. (On that point – full marks!)
    As for the lack of locals in the orchestra – 2 of the few long-term Malaysians (violin, cello – sisters) have just resigned. Hardly a vote of confidence in the management. The iron fist which they hold musicians with, barring them from teaching in the community, is obviously the key as to why the educational impact after 18 years has been so abysmal. The MPO is a Petronas corporate tool, nothing to do with a national musical organisation – with a single sponsor/master pulling all the strings, and a board of directors who sit on their hands and let the whole charade continue. With Marina Mahatir sitting there, one would hope for slightly better.

    1. Thanks for commenting and sharing your thoughts and knowledge to reinforce what I wrote. One does hope things would improve for the orchestra though that probably won’t happen without some fundamental changes.

  4. Thanks for taking the time to write this feedback. Very rare indeed that somebody bothers to write a review.

    During the first few years the MPO was indeed a fantastic orchestra, on a level you really could compare with other solid professional orchestras around the world. There are several CD releases and live recordings (youtube) to prove this.

    After the former chairman of Petronas (father of the MPO project) died, things slowly started to decline.

    The serious problems started 2010 after a new MPO management took over. From that moment onwards politics and saving money became much more important than the quality of performances. Suddenly there was a hostility towards the musicians and probably somebody decided that it was about time to dismantle the orchestra (around the same time Petronas closed down PPAG.)

    Most important signal maybe when Petronas fired several key players, mostly solo positions, in 2012 without any reason given. In fact exactly some of the musicians who ensured the high quality performances without “..a combination of jarringly wrong notes, issues in tempo and lack of synchronization between instruments..” how you put it so sharply.

    Now, after several pay cuts and contract changes it is not the “boycott” which is keeping international professional players from joining the orchestra. It’s simply the bad reputation. It is not attractive anymore; not financially, and definitely not if you consider the zero job security.

    Did you know that the recent new contract given to the musicians only offers one year work now?

    That there is no music director anymore to ensure development or even maintenance of the artistic level?

    The orchestra started in 1998 with slightly more than 100 musicians, you could say a standard size for a “serious” philharmonic orchestra.
    Now it is down to about 70 musicians and for every big program requiring a fullsized orchestra MPO needs to employ plenty of substitutes; for budget reasons often locals instead of experienced international professionals. Having a couple of substitutes ina concert is not a problem…but having 25 at the same time almost certainly will create a “lack of synchronization”.

    Maybe this can explain some of your recent concert experience.

    1. Thanks for your comment. It is indeed a sad state of things. And your point about substitute players really backs up my point on whether Malaysians have benefitted from the kind of talent MPO has been acquiring (or attracting at a certain point) for nearly two decades. Hopefully things get better for the MPO but it can only happen if there is a management that has, if not love and appreciation, then at least respect for the arts.

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