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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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.

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.

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Thrilogy

Thriloka and the Contemporary Chamber Orchestra (conducted by Manilal Weerakoon) performed at Thrilogy on Friday the 12th of June at the Bishop’s Auditorium. I don’t have time to write a review and will have to make do with several photographs I took.

But let me just say that only Thriloka themselves would be able to top that brilliant performance. To be objective, the orchestra was out of tune in many places and with the exception of the conductor, their lack of enthusiasm was palpable. And there were some problems with the sound equipment which resulted in occassional feedback from the instruments.

However, it is undeniable that Thriloka currently represents the best of Sri Lankan talent and I’m extremely proud of how they are constantly pushing the limits and how there is definite progression every time they take the stage.

Like so many people said that night, thank you Thriloka, for that experience.

Photos protected by Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works License

More photos here.

Dhyan Yathra

Dhyan Yathra took me on a much-looked-forward-to journey. Now if only half of Colombo didn’t turn up merely to socialise and be seen. But more about that later.

It started off with Karunaratne Kiriwattuduwe on santoor accompanied by the tabla. His performance made me wish, not for the first time, that I’d pay more attention when my father listens to Indian classical music. I have listened to Rahul Sharma quite a few times but last night I realized that I had listened on a very superficial level.

This performance couldn’t be enjoyed or even heard for that matter because the audience was not prepared for a long classical piece and therefore the discipline one sees at a classical concert was missing. It was very noisy and had it not been World Temperance Day, it may have been noisier. So everyone missed out on what could have been a very enjoyable performance, one that would have really taken us on a dhyan yathra. I hope we get to see him perform again, in an environment more conducive to classical music.

Next up was Mistake, who really need to come up with a new band name now that they have proven that there is nothing mistaken about them. I was not the only one impressed by their music. They started out a bit stiff, understandably due to nerves but started relaxing towards the middle of their performance. There seemed to be technical difficulties such as with sound balance but none of that stopped them from giving us an idea as to the kind of music they want to make.

There were loose ends and disjointed passages but nothing that couldn’t be rectified with experience since the musicians all showed potential. For a new band, they pulled off the usually difficult task of holding the audience’s attention and I look forward to their future performances with hopefully a tighter sound.

Harsha Makalande along with Alston Joachim, Shiraz Noor Amith, Ravibandhu Vidyapathi and Jithendra Vidyapathi played some of the best live music I’ve heard all year. It still didn’t surpass the last time I saw the same ensemble (minus Jithendra and plus Lakshman Joseph De Saram and Pradeep Ratnayake) but that again may have been due to the noise of the audience and the fact that there was no intimacy between the listeners and the performance.

It was evident that there was a lot of brilliant improvisation going on and the answering passages between Vidyapathy father and son on percussion only added to this musical treat. My only grouse is that there was no piano, which could have enhanced the quality of Makalande’s passages.

Lastly it was Thriloka (excuse me while I shift gears from fan girl to objective critic *cough*) and they just keep lifting the bar for all the other bands around. They started out with Unlucky Number and though I can’t point out the exact how and why, it sounded different from the last time I heard it. It was a good introduction to people who were listening to them for the very first time and it was almost amusing to see people who were as astounded as I was when I heard them for the first time.

The Thriloka version of Thunderblast from Selvaganesh‘s Beat it if you can was one of the best performances during that entire night. There was some fancy playing by the Pabalu, Harshan and Sarani but it was disappointing to note that even that couldn’t stop some people from jabbering nineteen to the dozen (yes I’m aware that I’m starting to sound like a broken record about this issue).

I was very interested in listening to their interpretation of Anna Balan Sanda from the moment I saw it listed in the evening’s programme and I was not disappointed. It proved the point I made in an earlier review about how Thriloka takes the essence of a piece of music and then fuses it to another style rather than simply repeating a well known tune with different instruments. While Sarani Perera on guitar gave a beautiful introduction to the song and then played the chorus itself, what stood out for me were the keyboard passages by Eshantha. For those who haven’t heard the original version, it being sung by Edward Jayakody can be found here.

The last track for the night was Raga De Latino and they keep adding something to this track everytime they play it. There was the answering passages between Sarani and Pabalu on guitar and percussion and that little bit of baila that disappeared as quickly as it appeared. And I love how the entire band seems to be connected by an invisible cord that tugs exactly at the same time.

While Thriloka is undoubtedly excellent at what they do, there were some things lacking. One thing I’ve been noticing (and so had others as I later found out) is that while guitar, keyboard, drums and percussion each has at least one solo to play during a set, the bass seems to be stagnating. All the musicians except for the bass player Uvindu have carved a niche for themselves and display individuality within Thriloka. While the bass parts can be heard more clearly than before, there is still room in their music for more bass. And as Alston Joachim proved last night, there is more to a bass player than standing in a corner, overshadowed by the other musicians.

The ambience was excellent at Barefoot for the kind of music played that evening but it was ruined by some parts of the audience who didn’t respect the musicians enough to keep quiet even if they weren’t interested in the music that was being played. However kudos to Rockapalooza Productions and Fusion Dhyan Arts Circle for putting the show together and for being willing to give exposure to young bands to play along with some of the best in the field.

All in all, it was an evening well spent with some good music and some even better music.