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