By Phang Kuan Hoang
A couple of cute infant Chinese Lions were brought inside the concert hall at the end of an MPO Family Fun Day series concert titled A Chinese New Year Celebration. They emerged from the exits near the stage and gradually trotted their way to the main galleria, playfully interacting with the audience. Accompanied by the smiley-faced ‘Da Lian Fuo’, and loud Chinese drums, the lions proved a climatic close for the Pre-Chinese New Year celebration concert presented by the Malaysian Philharmonic Orchestra (Sun Jan 30, 2005).
This event, being celebrated by the very government-affiliated institution of Petronas, seems a gung-ho promotion of our national racial harmony image. This is further secured by the image of the orchestra itself, consisting of players of different races and religion (with a tudung-ed player in the brass section), conducted by our very own Malaysian Chinese female Datuk, all in service of some traditional Chinese music.
I have to admit that I was actually late for the event (being informed at the last minute, I had difficulty borrowing a pair of shoes that fit the MPO’s “no sneakers” dress code), and by the time I was allowed into the concert hall, it was during the short interval before the second piece of the day. The editor would tell me later that the first piece ‘Spring Festival Overture’ sounded interestingly like a wild wild west theme (I mean it sounded Aaron Coplandesque – ed.).
I sat down as conductor Datuk Ooi Chean See was introducing ‘Jasmine Flower’ to the audience. I noted that the orchestra was equipped with Western musical instruments instead of Chinese ones. This was, of course, of no consequence, as it is the expression that injects true life and meaning. Then the orchestra played.
The outstanding technical professionalism of MPO certainly lent itself to an extravagant demonstration of exceptional musical technique, but with near-embarrassing musical expression. ‘Jasmine Flower’ was originally a piece of splendor, serene beauty, and elegance – it doesn’t require any extravagant make over.
The next few pieces were also standard Chinese classical repertoire. ‘Catching Butterflies’ is a musical piece from the famous Liang Zhu Chinese musical. It’s a love story about a poor scholarly student and a young maiden from a rich family. The girl had disguised herself as a man in order to enroll in higher education and it is at the university that the young lovers meet. But their love is not well received by the girl’s family and the boy eventually dies from love-sickness. While traveling with her convoy to be married to a rich man, the girl jumps into the suddenly open grave of the boy. The couple later reincarnate into a pair of butterflies. ‘Catching Butterflies’ was an early scene from the musical, depicting the young lovers on a field of flowers, catching butterflies. It is meant to have subtle romantic tones coupled with a slightly flamboyant mood, a portent of their bittersweet tragic end (or blissful end – if you think it cool to be butterflies).
‘Maidens of Alisan’, as introduced by the conductor, is a piece describing the beautiful maidens who inhabit a mountain in Taiwan called Ali. It’s an elegant musical portrait, imbued with tribal traditions, depicting a tribal beauty that is as unattainable as it is untamable.
Under the MPO’s impeccable technical precision, they all amounted to nothing but pictures so grand that it was difficult to make out the details. The ‘Jasmine Flower’ sounded like a military parade with canons mounted on carousels; ‘Catching Butterflies’ was completely devoid of any romantic expressions, except for the romance of soldiers striding victoriously into the capital. And ‘Maidens of Alisan’ depicted not elegant women, but a herd of elegant stallions galloping across an open field.
However, ‘The Dance of the Yao Tribe’, proved to be the most disappointing. The Yao Tribe is an indigenous people from China whose unique traditional culture is mystifying even to the Han Chinese. Suffice to say that the MPO, playing in a perfunctory manner, has failed to express any sense of wonder. And the intro sounded suspiciously like ‘When You Believe’ from the soundtrack of Prince of Egypt. Plagues and locusts indeed.
There was indeed a breath of anticipation as conductor K. L. Lai and the Hainan Youth Chinese Orchestra (HYCO) walked onto the stage. The event booklet described the proceedings at this time as “Demonstration and Performance” by the HYCO, but the demonstration part consisted of comparing the Chinese musical instruments with Western ones. Must one recognize the different number of strings attached to an Er-Hu and a violin before listening to them being played? And by making the erhu mimic a horse neighing, didn’t the demonstration present Chinese musical instruments as tokenistic, cute and just so amusing? Why was there a need to compare? Both orchestras produce different sounds, invoking different associations, sensations, but ultimately the same emotions and on equal musical grounds. So they play different musical instruments – get over it.
The HYCO then proceeded to perform four pieces, ‘Feng Yang Hua Gua’, ‘Xi Yang Yang’, ‘Fei Teng De Ma Tou’ and ‘Hua Hao Yue Yuan’. The first piece is a famous Chinese folk song; the second piece, die-die-also-must play during Chinese New Year. ‘Fei Teng De Ma Tou’ depicts the bustling docks of ancient cities, and the last piece depicts the bustling times of the year. The youth orchestra, with obviously less-experienced players, were, however, far too amateurish to produce a steady performance. Was the concert venue too intimidating?
However the HYCO’s musical presentation was not without its endearing uniqueness. Although nervousness could be discerned from the music-playing, which was loose, and lacking dynamics sometimes, I could sense the effort to keep each piece within its original context and expression.
After the HYCO came the finale to the Sunday afternoon event: a ‘Chinese New Year Medley’. This medley was performed by both the MPO with the HYCO. This time, the precise note-playing and the smooth transitions from song to song amounted to a performance that was just striving to express joy. Even Datuk Ooi’s effort to invite the audience to clap and sing along – “Gong xi, gong xi ni ah!” – failed to produce a performance that expressed any real festivity or cultural colours. Finally, with a Happy Chinese New Year cheer to the audience, the baby lions sprung to life and danced their way out of the concert hall.
Considering that we have come a long from 25 years ago, when the then Minister of Home Affairs had called upon a ban on the Lion Dance on the basis that it wasn’t “compatible” with the National Cultural Policy, I guess this concert is good progress. But I can only say that on this occasion, the MPO has presented an extremely pretty image of multi-cultural, multi-ethnic Malaysia – with grand art pieces filled with colors, which upon closer inspection, proves to be just a beautiful sea-shell.
Phang Kuan Hoong used to be an avid student of the Er-Hu, until he became too broke to continue lessons. He now plays the keyboard for his band.
First Published: 17.02.2005 on Kakiseni