Concert review: Battered and bruised, but Malaysian Philharmonic still can thrill

One of the enduring legacies of the Malaysian Philharmonic has been its encouragement of new Malaysian composing talent, so it was fitting that the concert began with a work by one of those native Malaysian talents, Vivian Chua.
One of the enduring legacies of the Malaysian Philharmonic has been its encouragement of new Malaysian composing talent, so it was fitting that the concert began with a work by one of those native Malaysian talents, Vivian Chua. PHOTO: FACEBOOK/MALAYSIAN PHILHARMONIC ORCHESTRA (MPO)

From Across The Causeway

Malaysian Philharmonic Orchestra, Gonzalo Esteban (clarinet), Eiji Oue (conductor)

Victoria Concert Hall

Saturday (1 September)

In August 1998 the Malaysian Philharmonic Orchestra burst on to the classical music scene.

Generously fuelled by Malaysian petro-dollars, it transformed the orchestral music scene in Asia from its very first concert. Soon it was being hailed as one of the very finest orchestras in the world and for the next dozen years it stunned audiences with playing of consistently top-class quality.

Then it all unravelled. A combination of political short-sightedness and managerial ineptitude saw the orchestra disintegrate almost overnight, until, a mere shadow of its once glorious self, its long-term viability hung by a thread.

Yet the Malaysian Philharmonic has hung on in there and is celebrating its 20th anniversary with a return visit to Singapore. Previous visits here have been under the batons of its successive Musical Directors - Kees Bakels, Matthias Bamert and Claus-Peter Flor - but now without a permanent Musical Director, this visit was directed by the extraordinarily extrovert, visiting Japanese conductor Eiji Oue.

One of the enduring legacies of the Malaysian Philharmonic has been its encouragement of new Malaysian composing talent, so it was fitting that the concert began with a work by one of those native Malaysian talents, Vivian Chua.

There were so many lavishly orchestrated big tunes squeezed into her Mercu Kegemilangan that it often sounded more like shavings from John Williams's workbench than a work rooted in Malaysia, but at least it gave the orchestra a chance to let off steam before knuckling down to the more refined task of accompanying a soloist.

The orchestra's own Principal Clarinet, Gonzalo Esteban, was the soloist in Copland's Clarinet Concerto. Oue balanced orchestra and soloist effectively, and Esteban's effortlessly easy playing was a source of immense pleasure.

However, Oue never quite managed to dovetail the various strands, and while Esteban produced a lovely tone and offered up a flawless delivery of the solo part, this was a performance lacking either finesse or cohesion.

With Beethoven's Fifth Symphony, Oue threw caution to the wind, and gave the orchestra its head. His studied avoidance of all those niceties of interpretation which scholars and purists tell us are appropriate to a Beethoven performance seemed almost perverse. Yet, while scholars and purists in the audience might have been tearing their hair out in horror, the rest of us, and all of the orchestra, were having an absolute ball.

This was a thrilling, supercharged performance, and about as exciting an exhibition of orchestral playing anyone could have wished for. The orchestra's fabulously electrifying, full-throated roar, seemed ready to burst the walls of the Victoria Concert Hall asunder.

The Malaysian Philharmonic has emerged from its troubles battered and bruised, but can still produce a stupendously magnificent sound which has the power to thrill all those who hear it.