By Andrew Hwang
Very few things romance the egalitarian Malaysian public as seductively as free gifts from public-listed companies.
When YTL Corporation Berhad (YTL) celebrated its 50th Anniversary, the public was offered free tickets to a series of concerts (13-17 Dec 2005) which were held at KL Performing Arts Center (KLPac). To make it more interesting, particularly for the Russell Watson concert, there was balloting for the limited 6,000 seats plus complimentary dinner for those who were successful in obtaining the passes. There must have been corporate finance people among the organisers as the entire balloting process reminded me of an initial public offering (IPO). The public was given the chance and the thrill of applying by ballot for free tickets from YTL. The Russell Watson concert was over-subscribed by a whopping 10,000! The lucky ones were allowed to come for the concert on 17 Dec 2005 with free transportation, door gifts of raincoats (in the unlikely event of showers) and a free dining experience on the lush open acres of the KLPac grounds. It was the event of the year: formal attire, festive marquees, snooty poshness and fireworks. But more about this later…
The YTL 50th Anniversary celebration opened with 3F: Fat, Fossil & Funny! (13 Dec 2005), a triptych of three stand-up comedians and their routines. The review partner I came with was not amused, although many of the people present were clearly entertained. Afdlin Shauki fared far better scat-singing than telling jokes about his wife’s armpits and wasn’t quite fat enough, as touted. Jit Murad, with his deadpan expressions, lived up to his “fossil” calling with dead-as-a-dodo jokes. The ones classified as political humour were more cringe-inducing than comical or satirical. Harith Iskander was slightly funny only because he always seems so sad. But boy, can he really play the electric guitar! Maybe in another lifetime, he could become a rock musician of some repute. These three chaps are not without talent. However, for comic acts to work successfully, there needs to be something more profound to the things they lampoon, where humour is a means and not an impotent end. YTL meant well in its support of the comic arts by showcasing comedy but comedians have minds of their own and parody can be so double-edged and double-faced.
Comedy trailed into the next day mixed with the spirit of Christmas. In the concert of choirs (14 December 2005), the LiT Performers and the Philharmonic Society of Selangor shared the limelight and the coming Christmas cheer. I wish I knew what LiT stood for. It was not in the programme booklet. Is it “lost in translation” or “lads in tights” for this coterie of 10 women singing barbershop? The general performance of a scant storyline about one Scrooge-like sister – interspersed with singing – was ironically entertaining and trite enough for bringing home the message that Christmas today IS actually all about consumerism and that very little of it is religious. This comic satirical element in the LiT Performers’ segment seemed to have come across better than the 3 comedians’ act the night before, although I doubt the LiT Performers had intended their song act to translate in this ironic direction. Singing was generally doo-wop with a strong rhythm and “bass” line (since it cannot really be called Bass due to gender anomaly) but the tightness of harmonies for barbershop singing was, more than just a few times, lost in translation. Some lovely voices here and there, but I’ve heard better singing from the SnL Singers (another group of singers with an equally enigmatic name).
The august Philharmonic Society of Selangor fielded an all women’s choir conducted by Yap Cheng May together with 2 soloists. The only man of the night was Brian McIntyre, one of the 2 soloists, who gave an excellent rendition of “The Christmas Song” including some very funny lyrics the second time round. Cindy Yeap, the other soloist, bravely attempted “Bailero”. The sustained floating lines were so much the basis of this piece, but Cindy broke the long phrases a few times, probably through a combination of nerves and technical insecurity. (To get an idea of how this song should be sung, try listening to the recording by the late Victoria de las Angeles.) Cindy’s “O Holy Night’ was much better sung, and she was applauded rousingly for this. The Phil’s women’s choir sang their Christmas carols quite sweetly, keeping closely to the sentiments of Christmas. It was commendable that YTL chose to support choral singing by giving it a platform, as this particular musical form of expression is probably one of the most gratifying and socially-inclusive compared to other forms of artistic expression.
The next concert I attended was Nuit d’Amour (16 December 2005) that featured operatic arias and ensemble singing performed by Malaysian opera performers. Chong Kok-Ting accompanied on piano. YTL has always been supportive of Western opera and continues to promote it as one of the highest forms of musical and dramatic expression. I particularly liked David Ngim’s counter-tenor voice: a rare treat in a difficult niche of classical singing. His voice was wonderfully clear and his singing of “Che Faró Senza Euridice” was beautifully rendered. The other singer who was memorable was Tan Khar Gee. She displayed great security in technique and a silvery coloratura. Even Cha Seng Tiang performed credibly his aria from Faust (by Gounod). The only singer who was not quite up to mark was Peter Ong who, while he was by far the best actor among the tenors, was unable to project his voice in the hall of Pentas 1. When he sang “Ping, Pang & Pong Trio” he could hardly be heard with Tan Wei Han and Aw Yeow Huey overshadowing him. This was made worse by Pentas 1’s reputation of having unforgivably poor acoustics for singing, although the organisers did put in tremendous effort in trying to improve the sound quality.
While a cross-section representation of opera was presented, there were about two, maybe three omissions, and too heavy a Puccini repertoire. Why were Rosinni, Verdi and Wagner not represented? Are there no singers in Malaysia who are capable of singing the highly intricate melismatic arias of Rosinni? Are there no singers with large enough voices that can stand the rigours of some of the most beautiful Verdi and Wagner arias?
The highlight of the YTL anniversary celebrations was the Russell Watson concert held in the park outside KLPac on the last day of the festival, for which both the Yang Dipertuan Agong and the Raja Permaisuri Agong were in attendance. Most of the songs performed by Russell Watson were from his albums and the Adelaide Symphony Orchestra under the baton of Mike Moran accompanied him. While Russell Watson obviously has a naturally beautiful voice, there was a marked disparity of standard between the pop-songs and the classical/semi-operatic songs that he chose to sing. I preferred that he stuck to singing popular numbers. When he ventured into opera cross-overs like “Nessun Dorma” and semi-classical numbers made popular by Pavarotti like “Feniculi Fenicula” and “Volare”, there was no way Russell Watson could hold out against the giants of the operatic world. Part of the reason he does not sing these songs well is probably because deep down, he is not terribly excited about them and sings them only by rote. He sings them because the mass audience expects them to be sung based on the formulaic 3 Tenors or the Andrea Bocelli concerts which combine contemporary pop music with classical songs, with the mistaken view that anything without drums or a drumbeat today cannot survive nor have any mass appeal. A better singer for this sort of thing would be Josh Groban, who at least trained his voice classically first and then, ventured quite successfully, into contemporary pop-ballad singing.
And in keeping with YTL’s trademark grandiosity, there was a magnificent display of fireworks to mark the close of the series of concerts. YTL has been generous in sponsoring all these concerts so that the Malaysian public would have the opportunity to be introduced to the richness of artistic forms and expressions, particularly in music and in theatre. But what has YTL to gain from all this?
For one, the YTL-funded KLPac stands to gain greater public recognition making it truly the flagship of Sentul West, the premier real estate development which has risen from the ashes of the formerly doomed Sentul Raya. Further, many in the crowd which thronged the Russell Watson performance matched the profile of potential property buyers that YTL might be looking out for to take up future developments on Sentul West. In my opinion, it seems like a very clever plan, bearing in mind the overall locality. By starting with a performance arts centre, food and beverage outlets, landscaped surroundings with water features and heritage buildings, YTL seems to be transforming this good-sized enclave in the heart of Sentul into an instantly marketable premium gated residential development – with its own little cultural playground. Rather than just building high-end residences only to see no takers, YTL has focused on building up more up-market recreational infrastructure, the real crowd draws, before bringing in the residents and millions into the YTL coffers.
If YTL really wants to show off its largesse, it should go all way and build itself a grander trophy. In that sense, the only thing missing now in Sentul West is an YTL-owned opera house. I suppose this could be supported by an associated conservatory to churn out the musicians and singers needed for the classical Western musical performances so beloved of by the Yeoh clan. In the longer term, YTL looks poised to become the numero uno corporate patron of performing arts in Malaysia, overshadowing even Petronas.
Andrew Hwang sings with Cantus Musicus for the free food and wine they provide.
First Published: 25.01.2006 on Kakiseni