Australia Boleh

The cello’s left rib edge can scar one’s inner left thigh, as I found out while playing with an amateur youth orchestra. Its extendable steel spike is sometimes detachable and useful for the cellist on foot who is afraid of stray dogs. Women were once discouraged from playing the cello due to the invitational leg embrace they had to assume during play. Mstislav Rostropovich owns a Stradivarius; Yo-Yo Ma is overrated. Apocalyptica and Rasputina are examples of all-cello bands: the former covers Metallica songs and the latter is associated with goth subculture. I played the cello for a total of one year and seven months. I kept the scar well hid.

This paragraph of trivia attempts to satiate an insecurity I formed after attending the Malaysian Philharmonic Orchestra’s recent Family Fun Day. I did not realise it was a Family Fun Day, and wore a dinner jacket. There were very many children.

I had come to see twins Ng Pei-Jee and Ng Pei-Sian. Both have performed with major orchestras in Australia, won numerous awards since 2000, studied under Steven Isserlis and Julian Lloyd Webber, and now attend the Royal Northern College of Music, Manchester on prestigious scholarships. Both are only 20. Worse: on the train home, a young boy with an MPO programme in his hand misidentified me and asked for an autograph.

Now I need to die.

Cellisimo, last November 21st, was conducted by Datuk Ooi Chean See, the Resident Conductor since 1997; she still resides in Germany though. The programme printed her resume. It includes quotes from two German sources (“With fascinating superiority, cultivated presentation and precise movements… ” – Hallesches Tageblatt; “The young, energetic musician….” – Westfalische Rundschau). It sounded impressive.

The programme also listed Carl Maria von Weber’s Invitation to the Dance as our first piece for the day. It described the piece’s solo cello beginning as a dancer ‘who approaches the lady of his choice and invites her to join him for a brilliant Waltz’.

Personally it was a difficult experience: the hypothetical lady was evasive, stepping on feet to make her escape. My attention was spliced for two independent performances: the orchestra itself, whose members had their eyes trained intently at their scores, instead of our conductor; and Datuk Ooi, whose waltzing baton corresponded to neither beat nor down-beat.

The conductor was now superfluous, and the orchestra later performed Glinka’s Ruslan and Ludmilla Overture in cast iron. It was the last piece of the day; its music describing a magical knight-and-damsel-in-distress adventure. Not only did the performance lack sweeping flow, Datuk Ooi flailed her arms just before or just after each successive tutti, giving away the climaxes or diluting them until the piece lost all significance.

Second offence:

Halfway through the concert a youngster was recruited from the audience and made to hold the cello; our twins proceeded to eviscerate the instrument. The A string was removed.

Ng Pei-Sian (I think): So cello strings are made of steel; violin strings are usually synthetic, but strings on the cello need to be stronger to stand the tension.

Datuk Ooi: Would you like to remove all the strings to show them that the bridge is not fixed to the instrument?

Ng Pei-Jee (maybe): Um, we don’t want to do that. We don’t want to damage the cello.

Mother of two children seated beside me: The sound post will drop lah!

The sound post, or sound peg, is a cylindrically-shaped piece of wood jammed between the front and back of a cello to facilitate greater resonance within the instrument. The sound post is not glued, and may fall over; repositioning it would require a luthier.

It is obvious that MPO Family Fun Days are designed to be introductions of aspects in orchestral music, geared at youngsters (The Rubber Band Guide to the Orchestra, A Prelude to Overtures). The audience appears reasonably intelligent. How does one deliver a satisfying education of the cello, much less conduct them in orchestra? A conductor, I had assumed, would necessarily possess a functional grasp of the orchestra’s individual instruments.

I would like to chalk the origins of my discomfort that Sunday to this paragraph, found in the Dewan Filharmonik Petronas 04 / 05 Concert Season Calendar:


Pei-Jee and Pei-Sian are twins, and are both superb cellists. While they happen to have been born in Australia, their parents are Malaysians …

I direct your attention to the second sentence. When she introduced them, Datuk Ooi obligingly cited this again.

Ng Pei-Jee (perhaps): Yes, our father’s from Penang and our mother’s from Miri, but we were born in Sydney, Australia.

Datuk Ooi: So, how does it feel to be back in Malaysia?

Ng Pei-Sian (I guess): Oh, it’s great. We were eleven the last time we were in Malaysia, so it’s great to be back and perform at some concerts.

‘Some concerts’. That the Ng twins are great musicians I’m not doubting. Their individual performances of Gabriel Faure’s Elegie and Tchaikovsky’s Pezzo Capriccioso were melancholy as break-up sex and drunk noisy as party sex, respectively; their duel in Vivaldi’s Concerto for Two Cellos was masterfully choreographed whiz­bang kung-fu whirl, with negligible slips in footing.

Trivia: this Vivaldi piece was the only concerto for two cellos among his many hundreds, and probably composed, like the rest, while Vivaldi was orchestra master at the Ospedale della Pieta in Venice, a shelter for some six thousand orphaned girls. The girls were reputedly prodigious in skill.

Sorry. Seeing the twins play that Vivaldi (Rv 531, keyed in G minor) exposed, once again, my failure at genius. It supplies me with no small degree of bitterness.

That the MPO needs to overplay the Malaysian connection of Pei-Jee and Pei-Sian, though, is mildly depressing. It is given that Malaysia Boleh! and The World’s Tallest Phallic Symbols deal with perceived inadequacies, and talented individuals are desirable commodities for any nationality, but as a friend of mine snidely observed: Thailand doesn’t lay claim to Tiger Woods.

While welcoming home and bestowing titles upon Datuk Ooi places one’s intelligence in question, the twins have no obligation to ‘be back in Malaysia’; they weren’t around to begin with. The link here is even more tenuous than in the case of that other prodigious ‘Malaysian’ we have come to laud. At least Guy Sebastian was born here.

I’m not saying that we are inadequate: the Malaysian Philharmonic Orchestra is a competent outfit. I’m not saying we aren’t inadequate: our premiere conductor doesn’t inspire her musicians to look at her. Bringing your kids to the orchestra is, I suppose, a productive way to fix the situation; you hope your tyke / proto-prodigy takes a liking to the music and grows up a maestro. My personal insecurity is one thing; an entire country’s insecurity is potentially more destructive. Snatching other people’s babies – that’s just criminal.


Zedeck is the Events Editor at Kakiseni. He is 18 and actually looks like the twins.

First Published: 02.12.2004 on Kakiseni

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