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



2015 Year in Review: Books

When a fulltime job combined with what could easily be called the best years of television come at you together, reading takes a backseat which is what happened to me from about 2012/13. While my 2015 Goodreads challenge to myself to read 25 books would make my former self hang my head in shame, it was nevertheless looking like a Herculean task at the beginning of the year.

But finally giving into a Kindle (thanks Abeysekera for the final push) and then truly falling for how amazing a gadget it is has resulted in (a) Shopping sprees on the Amazon store and (b) Surpassing my challenge by about 1.5 books.

I read a lot of books by women and/or about women this year. 2015 was also the year I read Teju Cole, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, Bell Hooks and Margaret Atwood for the first time (probably a result of resolving to read less South Asian literature for a year). It was also the year that I’ve begun to force myself to read at least two or three non fiction books though I tend to read them at a much slower pace, as opposed to the hundreds of articles and longreads that I read throughout the year.

So excuse me while I indulge myself (as per the paragraphs above) and write a few words about some of the books and authors that stood out from what and whom I’ve read this year.

Pyramus and Thisby – 2011

Took my camera along when I went to watch Pyramus and Thisby, “a hilarious adaptation of Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream”, according to Jehan Aloysius who devised, directed & choreographed the play.

It was a laugh riot and these were the shots I managed to take from my seat during the brief intervals I stopped laughing. Ended up going for it a second time without the camera so that I could catch all the action happening onstage.

The lighting wasn’t spectacular so there wasn’t enough light to properly capture the amazing choreography.


Stigmata’s ‘Psalms of Conscious Martyrdom’ – A Decade of Martyrdom has Paid Off

originally published in The Nation

“Here, did you know Stigmata’s new album is coming out this week?”

The question came from a friend’s mother a few days before the launch of Stigmata’ third studio effort, ‘Psalms of Conscious Martyrdom’. A few years ago I couldn’t have imagined a scenario where a parental figure would come up to me and strike up a conversation on heavy metal. It is 2010 and, as Bob Dylan would muse, the times they are a changin’; heavy metal is becoming a fascinating study of demographics with Stigmata, the country’s pioneering metal band, becoming the face of Sri Lankan metal. And they have done all of this on their own terms.

The weeks leading up to the launch saw the band sign up with the country’s leading record label M Entertainment, Sri Lanka’s first heavy metal billboard being put up in Colombo and the band travel around the country with Ian Wright of the Discovery Channel.

But the best proof of how far they have come in the last ten years was the 26th of June, 2010, the day they launched ‘Psalms of Conscious Martyrdom’, dubbed the most anticipated CD launch of the year.

While the number of gigs has increased in the last few years, metalheads still look forward to them with the same fervor. When it’s a Stigmata gig, there’s even more anticipation because it is guaranteed that regardless of circumstances, the ‘Stigz’ will put on a good show. And that is exactly what they did the night the Psalms were unleashed, proving that talent and showmanship can overcome technical glitches.

There is no denial that the sound issues that blighted the performance that night had an anticlimactic effect on the audience after the many months of hype, but fans and naysayers would both be of unanimous agreement that Stigmata is one of the handful of bands that could recover from such difficulties with such élan.

Fifteen songs were performed that night which included the entire track list of the new album, a tribute to the late Ronnie James Dio through a cover of Black Sabbath’s classic ‘Children of the Sea’ and of course the recent crowd favorite, the Stigmata version of Tarzan Boy.

The spirit of camaraderie was palpable. No member of the audience uttered a noise of protest during the times the band halted performing in order to tackle the technical glitches. Frontman Suresh put his charisma to good use as he kept the crowd entertained, ensuring that neither they nor his fellow band members were discouraged.

As someone put it the next day, it was truly a resilient performance and by the time the last track March of the Saints was performed, all earlier troubles were forgotten. There were feet being stamped collectively and row after row of horns being waved.

A decade of martyrdom had paid off.

Akasa Kusum

akasa kusumImage from http://akasakusum.blogspot.com/

I have noticed that every time I’ve watched a film by Prasanna Vithanage, it has made me think. For days afterward I would randomly remember something from the film, I’d research to understand certain parts of it that I did not fully comprehend. For an example, after watching Ira Madiyama, I attended lectures and discussions about it, read reviews and related articles (and went through a post-modernist phase as a result!) because there was much to think about and digest.

Akasa Kusum had the same effect on me, albeit with a slight difference. While Vithanage has been consistent in making another thought provoking film, this time around my ponderings have been on a more personal level than before and more short lived. Maybe I went in with too high expectations or maybe it really was weaker than his previous works. Someone with more insight could sort that out for me.

The cast was very good and Akasa Kusum is a great example of how much difference a good director could make. I have never been a big fan of Malini Fonseka and while this film did not change my mind overnight, it was heartening to see a sincere performance by her. There were parts where I did not connect to her at all and while it was a good performance overall, I wondered if she lived up to the accolades she has been receiving for this role.

The rest of the cast also performed ably, Dilhani Ekanayake was very believable as the stereotype young film star, Jayani Senanayake and Kaushalya Fernando gave excellent and authentic performances as per usual and Samanalee Fonseka was a revelation in what should have been her debut cinematic performance instead of the ditzy character she played in Heart FM.

But special mention must be made of Nimmi Harasgama. The last time I saw her was in Ira Madiyama (having missed Nisala Gira) and her improvement is astounding. She was a good actor to begin with but there were times when she was not convincing and all that has changed with her role as Priya in Akasa Kusum. Her facial expressions were a treat to watch, whether it were the subtle changes of emotion or the powerful outbursts. The rest of her body language could have been better but all in all, she beautifully (literally and metaphorically) navigated her way through what I believe must have been a difficult and emotionally draining role.

The main reason why I think Nimmi Harasgama outshined Malini Fonseka in this film is because while the latter seemed to present a seemingly shallow portrayal of what was a very tortured character (it felt as if she was merely following the Director’s instructions and not adding her personal input as she mentioned she had) while the former gave part of herself to her role and went beyond what Vithanage had envisaged for the role. In a recent interview Vithanage mentioned that Malini Fonseka gave part of herself to the role but this was hardly translated to the audience. But like I said earlier, this may have been a result of having too many expectations of her and each individual would have their own opinion on how she measured up.

The story was not as powerful as Vithanage’s previous works. While it was wonderful to have him write a female centric script and garner some powerhouse performances from the cast, towards the end of the film it was felt that the characters were not given enough time to ponder over some new twists in the story. I don’t want to go into details in case I give away the entire story. The parodies of modern Sri Lankan television (which Sirasa TV had sportingly been part of) were a nice touch as were the subtle changes in the main character’s appearance, daily routine, etc.

The background score by Lakshman Joseph De Saram captured the spirit of the film very well but I was confused about the abrupt editing of the film. At certain points, it felt as if we were being rushed from one scene to another and I wish there was a more seamless quality to it. I must also note that I’m clueless about such technical aspects of film making and therefore am not qualified to pass judgment on it (though I just did!).

However, the last few seconds of the film changed my doubts about the script because those few lines summed up the personal struggles Vithanage explored through this film and left me with that hollow feeling in the pit of my stomach, which is how I measure a really good film. As I mentioned earlier, Vithanage once again succeeded in making a thought provoking film.

To sum up, Akasa Kusum is a film you should consider watching (though I was very disappointed to find that there were no English subtitles which I didn’t need but some people would, if the film is to reach out to a wider audience) and while it is not Vithanage’s best work, it is a poignant and insightful piece of work on lives that may be alien to most of us.

Guest Post – Review: Cantando Cello Ensemble: Lionel Wendt: July 2nd ’09

By Eshantha Peiris

D minor triad. Multiply by 13 unamplified cellos on the Lionel Wendt stage. Result: one of the most powerful openings to a live concert that I’ve ever experienced. The compositions of J.S. Bach have a knack for being readily adaptable to instruments for which they were not originally written: e.g. from pipe-organ to symphony orchestra (Stokowski), string-band to vocal-jazz-group (Swingle Singers), viola-da-gamba to electric-guitar (Malmsteen), and even apparently, from solo-violin to cello-ensemble. Although listening to the Cantando Cellos’ interpretation of Bach’s Chaconne in D minor from Violin Partita (arr. Laszlo Varga), I was not reminded of a lone fiddle; rather the constantly evolving multiple musical layers shared among the cellos served to create a truly hypnotic sonic landscape of their own (interrupted only occasionally by some very human tuning inaccuracies in the upper notes). Otherworldly music indeed. (no wonder NASA likes sending recordings of Bach on their probes to outer space…) And a fitting introduction to Cantando Cello Ensemble’s 5th annual concert, held on July 2nd.

Jazz-musicians and neuroscientists often marvel at how classical-instrumentalists can synchronize their playing without the aid of a steady beat or a cue-giving conductor. David Popper’s Suite showcased this phenomenon quite vividly, with the cello octet displaying a remarkable sense of group-coordination as they stylishly navigated through fluctuating moods and pulse. I presume they must have rehearsed a lot together.

As with most else on the program, Cesar Franck’s Sonata in A major (originally composed for violin and piano) was presented in an adapted format (featuring Dushy Perera, cello and guest musician Rohan de Silva, piano). I had forgotten what a musically sensitive pianist de Silva can be; the velvety tone he was able to extract from the piano in the first movement was rivaled only by a breathtakingly intuitive sense of ‘rubato’ melodic timing in the solo piano passages. There’s a reason the man is a pro. The second movement, while hectic, was less impressive, but fortunately the cello took over the challenge of driving this brilliant movement to a show-stopping close.

The narrative element of the concert really came to the forefront following the intermission: with the audience comfortably back in their seats (sans noisy cellophane cashew-nut wrappers), the ensemble was successful in immediately drawing the listeners back into the music with a magically quiet vibrato-less chord, before proceeding to conjure up vivid images of fertile landscapes (Dvorak: Largo from ‘New World Symphony’, arr. Lothar Niefind) and dancing skeletons (Saint-Saens: Danse Macabre, arr. Edward Laut). While the use of theatrical lighting cues is not typical of the classical concert format, it did occur to me that more could have been done with the stage-lighting to enhance the dramatic qualities of these two pieces. For future reference I would like to suggest that a music-score-reader be deployed in tandem with the lighting-engineer in order to maximize synchronization of lighting-effects and music.

A curiously witty arrangement of Mancini’s Pink Panther theme by Manilal Weerakoon was able to exploit the full textural vocabulary of the cellos (effects typically relegated to weird experimental music) in service of the musical humour inherent in this famous tune. However, in spite of a grooving walking-bass-line courtesy of Andrea Leitan (double-bass), the rest of the band didn’t quite seem to get the swing-feel required of this music (it felt a bit down-beat-oriented for my taste); but this is a problem with classical-musicians world-wide, so I can’t complain too much. Anyhow, this didn’t stop the audience (and the lighting engineer) from having a ball with this piece!

The excerpts from Bernstein’s West Side Story seem to have become a Cantando trademark, and it seems to sound better every time I hear them play it. With the chorus of Tonight being the ultimate melodic-vehicle for showcasing the ‘cantando’ (i.e. singing) capabilities of the cello, this potentially goose-bump-inducing refrain could have had a bit more support (i.e volume) from the pulsing rhythmic accompaniment, I thought. Bringing in a guest classical percussion player was a nice touch, and added some spice to the music; however I’d love to hear what kind of flavours a specialist Latin-percussionist would be able to bring to the same mix.

Overall, a highly enjoyable concert, now turning into a much-looked-forward-to annual event. Cantando Cello Ensemble must also be commended for maintaining a standard of quality musicianship and ensemble-playing, and in doing so providing a platform for the development of new talent on the local music front. We wish them many more fruitful years of music-making and look forward to hearing more new music from them in the future.