three composers - two English and one Japanese composer, all born
after the turn of the 20th century - must make for some pretty unusual
content. The names of Britten and Walton might give the evening's
programme a degree of familiarity, but otherwise this could have
been something more commonly found on Wednesday contemporary concerts.
Above all, this was a catholic programme in which elements of East
and West were mixed and presented from different perspectives: Britten's
The Prince of the Pagodas assimilating Balinese influences
into the Western classical style, and Matsushita's Hi-Ten-Yu
fusion of Western orchestral palette and traditional Japanese percussion
into a paean of celebration.
proved to be a rewarding experience for those with adventurous tastes.
Visually, the cyclopean eye of the wadaiko staring balefully from
the back of the stage only served to confirm the atypical nature
of what the evening was going to bring: it was going to be the type
of concert which you're unlikely to come out whistling any tunes,
but maybe with odd bits and pieces from here and there sticking
in the mind.
Prince of the Pagodas was Britten's first major ballet score,
and one which he produced with tortuous difficulty. Arranged into
a concert suite by two of his friends, Donald Mitchell and Mervyn
Cooke, the result was a wonderful series of character pieces not
unlike Tchaikovsky's Nutcracker. It is all the more surprising
that this charming work does not receive more exposure than it deserves.
of New Music
Associate Conductor of the MPO, Kevin Field is the
intrepid voyager who spends more time exploring strange new
musical territory, than cruising in familiar classical and
romantic waters. Benjamin Chee, also travels quite
a bit (in more ways than one), met up with him.
us about the music you perform.
we started out, we established our reputation with late 20th
century repertoire - there are so few orchestras interested
in performing contemporary works. But we do perform music
by modern composers. For instance, we're going to do a piece
by Joyce (Koh) - my attention was brought to her by a friend.
We also hope to represent more composers from the region,
especially of course Malaysians.
the response to the contemporary concerts surprise you ?
response to these concerts has been amazing.We're talking
about selling out the DFP on weekdays (even if it's ten ringgit).
In a whole season, we may have about six concerts of new music
- which doesn't appear to be much, but it's quite a lot over
the course of a whole season. We do music from people like
Henze, Schoenberg, Ades and Turnage.
is Kuala Lumpur different from where you came from ?
the UK, culture is spelt with a small "c". Here, without the
preconceived resistance, you don't have to take it all on
the chin, as it were. Back in Bournemouth, I started Kokoro
- that's Japanese for "heart" - but really it was a new music
ensemble out of the Bournemouth Symphony. We would do works
like A Soldier's Tale. It was like having two concerts
in one, like a late-night jazz club, offering small snippets
to the audience of maybe 500,600 people. It was like a moon
orbiting around a large planet.
you do the same here now....
role here now is to bring in new music, apart from the standard
classico-romantic repertoire which Kees (Bakels) does. Boulez
once said that you should run with a full orchestra with 130
musicians, but rotate them between standard, contemporary
and baroque repertoire.
what the St Paul Chamber Orchestra did, splitting the conductorship.
John Adams the composer, Christopher Hogwood was the baroque
specialist, and a certain up-and-coming hotshot named Hugh
exactly it. Not too long ago - by that I actually mean last
season - in one amazing week we did a baroque concert (conducted)
by Paul Dyer one weekend, then played Thomas Ades on Wednesday,
and at the end of that week we did a Bruckner symphony.
surely you must have rotated the musicians?
of course, we did that, but not that much - so some of them
would have done the baroque and then contemporary, for example;
or played in the contemporary concert and then the Bruckner.
So they would have performed in different styles within the
space of a week.
do you get exposed to so much new repertoire ?
email. Word of mouth. And of course people send you their
music. I keep in touch with most of the major music publishers,
and they know what I want. We also commission our own works
- I have one work from Fernando, and another from Tajuddin
- a full symphony. In our next season, someone from the region
will be represented in each contemporary concert.
talk about tonight's concert.
programme is very challenging. Kees saw a video of Hayashi
sometime back and thought we might want to do that. As for
Britten - I love Britten. When he was in Bali - he was in
Bali once, did you know that - he heard the gamelan and it
influenced the music he was working on. When we performed
Adams (Short Ride on a Fast Machine), I stuck in a
gamelan ensemble in the arrangement by Clarke. It was interesting
to find Britten putting all gamelan music into Western orchestra.
I had musicians in the orchestra, after one of the rehearsals,
coming up to me and telling me they recognized the gamelan
themes (from Britten) from one of their recent trips to Bali
about your education and outreach programmes ?
we took the orchestra to an international school in the Klang
Valley. We insisted it to be opened to other schools as well,
and I think we might have played to about 1,000 kids in 3
concerts. Here, we're talking about kids which have never
seen an escalator before - well, not literally that,
you know what I mean - and they were watching this orchestra
for the first time. They heard (Stravinsky's) The Firebird,
Mambo from West Side Story, Lerner & Loewe's
I Could Have Danced All Night and something snappy
from Riverdance. The effect on the audience was astounding.
an idiomatic Prelude, Kevin Field fecklessly led the MPO through
each of the four character dances: spiky Prokofievian rhythms for
the King of the North, surreal arppeggios of strings and
high horns for the King of the East, inimitable wit and quasi-parody
of avant-garde for the King of the West and an irrepressible
menace con fuoco for the King of the South. Field
wove a sinuous tapestry of the dance music with much charisma and
style, eliciting good response from the orchestra.
latter movements proved even better. The Pagodas Revolve like
Merry-go-rounds allowed the percussion section to come to the
fore with some superb musical evocation on xylophone, celesta and
piano, with motifs based on actual Gamelan themes. More Balinese-influenced
music emerged in The Salamander, with Field evoking a different
brand of quietly confident nobilissimente from the moustache-twirling,
stiff-upper-lip grandiloquence on associates with British composers.
could readily sense that Field was very much at home with Britten,
rendering the balletic idiom with style and verve. The sumptous
build-up to the revelation of the Prince's identity was a magnificent
piece of work between conductor and musicians, leading into a lovely
pas de deux featuring the cor anglais and harp in
the eponymous The Prince and Belle Rose.
to add here that each of the movements was played right through
with minimal stoppage in-between, and latecomers missed the work
in its entirety. However, this had the distinct advantage of allowing
both audience and musicians to retain concentration and unity in
the music-making from crowd disruption - a wise decision, even if
tardy audiences suffered all the more for it.
Matsushita (b.1950) is a Tokyo-born composer who studied composition
in his native Japan and Germany. His manifesto in comingling elements
of Japanese philosophy and music with contemporary Western forms
led to the creation of experimental works such as Hi-Ten-Yu.
Literally meaning "fly-heaven-play", this can also be taken to mean
(like the Frank Sinatra song goes) "flying to heaven to play among
the stars" - and in apparition, it was an ersatz concerto for taiko
drums and orchestra.
composed for an 8-piece ensemble of wind-and-strings, here it was
performed in Matsushita's own transcription for full Western symphony.
The centerpiece of attention - the oversized wadaiko - is
actually a traditional Japanese drum used in special ceremonies
as a representation of the unification of heaven and earth.
the solo spotlight was Eitetsu Hayashi (below), arguably the world's
first exponent of symphonic wadaiko. As would be expected,
the sonority of the almighty drum was erumpent, or what writer David
Foster Wallance might describe as "flatulence-of-the-Gods". I for
one was glad this was a properly acoustically designed hall (and
not, say, the University Cultural Centre), which imparted a comfortably
rotund reverb to the subterranean bass frequencies.
with all percussion showcases, the visual element was visceral in
its intensity, yet spiritual in its approach. Matsushita's instrumental
tone-painting conjured, for me, shades of Schoenberg's Vier Orchesterstücke.
With its frenetic moments of full orchestral ad libitum,
Field latched onto the spiky instrumental configurations with conviction
and displayed his immaculate grasp of the music's rhythmic texture
result was a combustible, if not beguiling, tour de force
of symphonic virtuosity from all quarters. Even without the soloist,
this was especially a masterclass from the percussion section of
the MPO. In the "cadenza", Hayashi's pulsating thrumming reached
otherworldly levels of vertigo-inducing potency in an extended ascent
of unremitting drumstrokes towards the inevitable apotheosis. This
man made Riverdance look like a Boy Scouts' campfire.
surprise that members of the audience leapt to their feet to give
an ovation. After three curtain calls, Hayashi obliged with an encore.
It was his self-composed Utegi, aptly meaning "celebration",
which had the audience flouncing away in their seats; tapping their
feet; headbanging to the beat. Utegi alone was worth the
price of admission, if only for the rare opportunity to watch a
wadaiko master in action.
unexpectedly, the audience seemed leaner after the break. Walton's
First Symphony may not be on many people's A-list of favourite
big works, and weighing in at forty-five minutes doesn't help its
case any. Mirroring the composer's own emotional turmoil, Walton's
Symphony was a highly anticipated event after his successes
with Façcade (1922), Sinfonia Concertante (1927),
Viola Concerto (1929) and Belshazzar's Feast (1931). It was
presented with only three movements in 1934, and the full premiere
not given until the following year.
the opening timpani, horns and repeating oboe motif, Field set the
mood of disquiet for the rest of the music to follow. This was not
the pungency of chords and jagged rhythms evoking a sense of tension
as much as simmering nervousness that was not allowed to reach a
full boil. Certainly there was lots of bombast from the racuous
brass adding their prickly shards into the mix, much as there was
thrilling interplay between the various instrumental sections. But
the agitation was not palpable - not by the end of the first movement,
the central movements, the con malizia of syncopated chords
and displaced rhythmic angularity was dispatched with more of the
same subsultus from before. Field's affinity for this music was
always in abundance, bringing out some excellent playing from the
players - the woodwind choir, with their broad thematic arc, was
given ample latitude to essay Walton's writing. In particular, the
solo flute passage doloroso molto expressivo was sweetly
done, as was the viola section in the third movement.
final movement - appended separately and commonly less regarded
from the first three - saw Field bringing out some dextrous playing
from the orchestra in the meaty yet lyrical fugal passages. Splendiferous
brass again punctuated the music with aplomb, while Section Principal
Paul Philbert continued his fetish with the timpani (something which
began in Hi-Ten-Yu). Much tension redux, and then Field unleashed
everything over-the-top in the coda (including timpani in the mushroom-cloud
range). I have to confess, Walton has never been my cup of tea -
but this was a cathartic, wrenching experience all the same.
favourite musical travelogue is Elinor Armer's Uses of Music
in Uttermost Parts.
© Benjamin Chee
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