The MPO Winter Collection

I spent the first two years of my marriage as a professional mall rat. And I’m here to tell you, young grasshoppers, that if you need a bathroom on a Sunday, and just so happen to be in KLCC at the time, forget about getting close to an empty toilet stall. Just. Plain. Forget it.

WHY did I need a toilet? Well, not for the obvious reasons. In actual fact, I’d realised too late that the zipper on my fly had broken. This wardrobe malfunction wouldn’t have happened if I had worn my trusty pair of jeans. But then the Dewan Filharmonik Petronas wouldn’t have let me in. Here’s my pet peeve. I love all forms of music, and dang if I’m not a fan of the Jazz/World Music series, but I’d attend more shows if I didn’t have to buy a new outfit every time I wanted to listen to some excellent music. I mean, what’s up with that? I freely admit to being a slob, but good music is best appreciated in comfort! COMFORT, MAN! Pfft.

And so it was that I found myself dressed in last year’s Chinese new year top, dress slacks, and my favourite (and worn-down!) pair of BLay’s, in hopes that it would pass muster with the stringent dress code imposed by the DFP, even if it was supposedly “Smart Casual” on Sundays.

The show I was watching was the Festive Family Fun Day concert by the Malaysian Philharmonic Orchestra. The ticket said to be seated 15 minutes before the show, and so we were. My daughter, fidgeting as usual, slipped the pink hood of her jacket over her head and peered over the balcony railing. Hubby beside me had threatened earlier to haul out his iPod if he got bored, but soon decided that he’d prefer a picture of the Dewan to show his pals back in Turkmenistan.

Aiyo, we’re not THAT ulu lah! I gave him a poke in the ribs to warn him against it. With much reluctance and face-making, he complied. I have to say, from our 3rd story box seat vantage point, we had an excellent view of the stage, and many a bald pate. The suites are excellent, and if you need a loo badly on a Sunday, you won’t find one better (or less occupied) than the ones at the DFP.

On to the décor! Hanging from the galleries were a battalion of little Santa Claus plush dolls rappelling, each with what was presumably a sack of toys over each tiny shoulder. They look like Commando Santas smuggling Uzis and cute little hand-held grenades for boys and girls who’ve been good (after all, what’s a year end without a big bang?). Also, a larger sized Santa doll clung, ape-like, to the conductor’s stand. If Freud had anything to say about that, I probably wouldn’t want to know what it was. Or at least would not say it out loud.

The abso-poso best decoration was the orchestra itself. The brass section at the last row sported red reindeer antlers (believe me, I’d have thought they were moose), a grey-bearded Santa was on trombone, and the harp (not the harpist) sported a Santa hat. But the best dressed award, as announced by presenter and baritone Australian Michael Lewis, went to the two flautists, bedecked in jackets sporting purple and gold bells and matching earrings.

Five minutes after 4:30pm, conductor Kevin Field skipped out, obviously feeling Christmassy and raring to go. The orchestra swung into their version of Leroy Anderson’s “Sleigh Ride.” My daughter started bouncing in her seat to the rhythm, and I could just feel a grin stretch across my face. The music just totally caught me up, and towards the end, an antlered trumpet player stood up and mimicked the neighing of a horse (do reindeers neigh?) with a cute little farting and blatting sound.

I had to laugh. The trumpeter looked quite pleased with himself.

The next song was John Rutter’s “The 12 Days of Christmas” which combined the innocent voices of Susanna Saw’s KL Children’s Choir and Yap Cheng May and Francesca Buttle’s Alice Smith School’s Choir. They were decked out in crisp white shirts and red tinsel-ties. Before they started though, Michael gave the audience a crash course on how to sing their part: (all together now!) Five Golden Riiiiiings!

The other songs featured that afternoon were Prokofiev’s “Troika,” a lively and rousing march, Gustav Holst’s “In the Bleak Midwinter,” which was a little bit too slow, judging by the fidgeting of little bodies that I caught out of the corner of my eye, the traditional sing-a-long “Ding-Dong Merrily On High”, which was short and sweet, and Howard Blake’s “The Snowman” which wasn’t.

Author and composer Howard Blake, we were informed, was sitting in the audience. Since the music itself – all 26 minutes of it – was composed to complement the story, Michael settled down on a chair, book in his lap, to – read it out loud, accompanied by the MPO. Unfortunately, one man alone cannot rise above the volume of an orchestra without some digital and electronic assistance. Poor Lewis looked like he was having a cow, trying to shout over the volume of the music.

And so we endured. Ten minutes into the music and garbled narration, I noticed my husband drooping forward in his seat and the pink-hooded head of my daughter slumping over the balcony railing. I think I must have blanked out about five minutes after, and was startled awake by the rolling sound of the big bass drum moments later.

At around this time, the two soloists, Daniel Jeyachristi Anthony and Darrel Chan Yew Chung stood to sing the song “Walking In The Air” in angelic voices. (You know, I could just swear I’ve heard that tune before sung by Finnish Metal band, Nightwish.)

Anyway, it was about that time that Michael’s narration got loud enough to be heard and understood, and the story concluded with the little boy waking from his dream of Santa and living Snowmen to find that it wasn’t a dream after all. A quick prod into my husband’s ribs woke him from his dream in time for the next song, a fun family favourite by John Pierpoint, “Jingle Bells.”

The audience joined in the singing with much gusto, and a little girl in green jacket stood in her seat and mimicked Kevin’s gestures, even going so far as to act out parts of the song, literally jingling all the way. The show finished with a rousing rendition of “We Wish You A Merry Christmas” by the choir and orchestra.

The overall mood had been cheery and even slightly giddy. It was a short and sweet one-hour programme, and being a mother of a seven-year-old, short enough that the customary call for a potty break was never voiced. My eventual trip to the non-crowded ladies’ was quite entertaining. One lady with her two kids was singing snippets of the “12 Days of Christmas,” and an old lady with a neck-brace announced that this was her second viewing of this particular show, as she had enjoyed the performance the night before tremendously.

Being an amateur chorister myself, I was quite impressed by how smoothly the voices of the two choirs managed to fit together. The two choirs managed that with only minor hitches along the way, the foremost being the unfamiliarity with following a different conductor than the one they are used to. So, I guess if I were to be picky, I’d say that the sweet, light voices were beautiful, but timid and tentative, and in a few dicey moments, were a beat or two behind the orchestra. But nothing in the show (except for the incongruous “In the Bleak Midwinter”) suggested that it should be taken this seriously. And everything, from the Christmas spirit in the sparkle of lights above as well as the ones reflected off the bald spots below, to the informal mood, the obvious joy and good cheer radiating from the orchestra, conductor, presenter and choir (yes, especially from one cute little girl in the first row with a centre parting and a perpetual grin whenever she sang), was totally infectious. They made me wanna complete my Christmas shopping there and then. Yay!

But if it’s not presumptuous of me to say this, I’d say that the audience seemed more a gathering of slightly displaced souls. When baritone Michael Lewis asked the crowd who had experienced a White Christmas, quite a lot of hands shot up. And among the children choir and orchestra, many of whom aren’t local to begin with, a White Christmas naturally isn’t the exotic experience it is to most of us who’ve lived our lives in a country where our average yearly snowfall is…  why… none!

I’ve never experienced Christmas fully, specifically, the Christmas represented by the wintry decor and snowy songs this afternoon. The traditions, the weather, the myths, the overall mood of it. We get plastic trees, mass-­produced baubles and ornaments, and this year, I even saw a faux-grass installation of reindeers on display at Amcorp Mall.

So this Festive Family Fun Day concert looked like a party of nostalgia for those who are missing the real thing back home. It was a very interesting perspective, sitting in a balcony, and watching Christmas unfold from afar. And I mean this in every aspect of the word.

And maybe that’s what Christmas will always mean to me. A glossy, cheerful scene that I’ll always only be able to observe, but never totally be a part of. No going to church, no prayer, no feasting. Only making merry, and using my amazing abilities as a successful mall-rat to get gifts for the ones I love. Thank Santa for malls.

Merry Christmas.


Zalina Lee is the Kakiseni Office Manager. In the office, she enjoys blasting Adam Sandler’s “Happy Hanukkah.”

First Published: 23.12.2005 on Kakiseni

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