A dream between the twin towers

Decadent Western music is coming to Muslim Malaysia. But who really benefits? By Michael Church
Click to follow
The Independent Culture
HOSTING THE Commonwealth Games was always going to be a moment of truth for Kuala Lumpur, and the timing now is cruel. A collapsing currency has littered the Malaysian capital with abandoned projects - shuttered shops, half-built ghost-towns, concrete pillars supporting an invisible mono-rail - but amazingly, the key things are bang on target. The stadium is up-and-running, and something remarkable has appeared at the base of the Petronas Twin Towers - the world's tallest building - like a silver football trapped between the feet of a giant.

A symphony hall is a must for any Far Eastern country wishing to Westernise itself, but this one - with its brand-new orchestra - reflects an extraordinary melding of cultures, where British musicians have been the catalyst. For Muslim Malaysia has traditionally viewed Western music as decadent: the classical torch has been carried by the ethnic-Chinese business class, who routinely put their offspring through British piano grades. And in Malaysia the cultured Chinese are resented by poorer Malays as the Jews were in turn-of-the-century Vienna. This inferiority-complex is what Prime Minister Mahathir terms "the Malay dilemma", and resolving that dilemma through job-quotas has long been the policy of the government.

But orchestras are not assembly-lines, and violinists aren't created overnight. When the state-owned Petronas oil company decreed a resident orchestra for their new concert hall, they asked the London branch of IMG Artists to set it up. The resulting band is preponderantly American, British, and Hungarian, with just four Malaysians who are all - surprise, surprise! - ethnic Chinese, including a young harpist found studying in Manchester. Is this yet another snub for the Malays?

No, because Petronas chairman Tan Sri Azizan is playing a long and clever game. On hearing that a Malaysian woman conductor called Chean Si Ooi was working in Germany, he sent IMG to check her out. It emerged that she had long been trying to found a Malaysian symphony orchestra and she is now resident conductor in Kuala Lumpur. Meanwhile, Tan Sri appointed as his music director the Dutch conductor, Kees Bakels, who is determined, like Chean Si, to nurture any local composing talent that he comes across. "Even if the quality isn't great, I'd rather do something Malaysian than import high-grade, ready-made stuff from China or Japan."

As general manager - the lynchpin of any orchestra - Tan Sri chose John Duffy, a former LSO boss whose gilt-edged reputation drew a flood of applications from players in Britain and America. Indeed, I have never encountered a more contented bunch than the players I meet here, and not just because pay and conditions are so good. "Creating this orchestra has been a dream," says Duffy. "Starting off with no prior ill-feeling between players and management, we've been able to design a contract which is right for the local situation." The unique thing about this contract is that it stipulates that every player should also teach, which brings us to Tan Sri's next goal: a full-scale conservatoire in Kuala Lumpur, from which his orchestra will eventually be staffed.

As it happens, there already is a conservatoire of sorts, in a scatter of bungalows 10 miles outside town. Just two years old, this is part of the rapidly-expanding University Putra Malaysia, and it only exists because its vice-chancellor asked the Birmingham-trained Malaysian percussionist Minni Ang to create a campus orchestra. To have an orchestra, she replied, you first need a music department, so hey presto! she got one. The full orchestra has to rehearse on the lawns, which can be problematic in the rainy season, and the paper-thin walls of the bungalows let all the practitioners hear each other, which makes for a merry din. But these students work with such intensity that nobody cares about privacy, and miracles duly happen.

The miracle I encounter goes by the name of Loo Fung Chiat, a shy 21- year-old who delivers Chopin with thunder and lightning, and who tells me her goal is a scholarship to London. I predict she'll get one with ease, but that's not the prime purpose of this institution. "Until now," says Minni Ang, "music in Malaysia has been the province of the rich. Hopefully this department, which is for poor students like Fung Chiat, will change things a little."

Another of Ang's students is a father-of-three called Mizan, who bikes 100 miles each day for the privilege of learning the tuba. And as a Muslim he is prepared to answer a question which his fellow-students are too embarrassed even to discuss. Why is it that local Islamists condemn Western music? "It's a question of instruments," he says. "Drums, for example, don't deflect us from thinking about life after death. Even the Prophet approved of music with rhythm, which spurred people to get on with their lives. But strings are so beautiful that they make us forget about our higher purpose. That makes them morally dangerous."

Back at the Malaysian Philharmonic, people feel no less hedged about by religion. Tan Sri tells me of the problem he has had with "a small group who would like to use religious differences for political ends". Controversy focused on the concert hall's organ - seen by some as a Christian instrument. He has had it covered in Malaysian designs, and now it looks properly oriental. Meanwhile, any work with a text must be submitted for government approval before it's performed: grand opera, with its penchant for illicit liaisons, wouldn't stand a chance.

More seriously, anything on which a Zionist construction might be put is out of the question. Elijah would be banned on textual grounds, not because its composer Mendelssohn was a Jew. But in Malaysia, which has no diplomatic relations with Israel, Jewishness in performers is another hazard. Chean Si recalls the day a youth orchestra she was bringing was nearly stopped at the border because one girl was Israeli: they only got through thanks to intercession by Malaysia's First Lady, who happened to be one of their patrons. And then there are the Jewish performers who refuse to come: Kees Bakels speaks with contempt of the virtuosi - no names, but we can guess - who won't play in Malaysia, but gladly do so in Muslim Turkey. Never mind, the indefatigable Yehudi Menuhin has booked to play in KL next year. Malaysians may observe prayers five times every Friday - the Petronas towers are equipped with mini-mosques for office- workers - but this is still one of the most moderate Muslim countries in the world.

Sean Connery may be about to shoot a film in the Petronas Twin Towers, but the young Malaysian intelligentsia have their own reasons for ambivalence towards their new musical toy, particularly in a time of ferocious recession. "It's like Scarlett O'Hara buying a new dress while civil war is raging," says lawyer Sheena Gurbakhash, who goes on to warn the expat players to fine-tooth their contracts. "We in Malaysia are good at wooing foreigners to work for us, and then exploiting them once they're here." Eddin Khoo, poet and music promoter, sees the orchestra as a calculated political statement. "Over the last 10 years our government has tried to remake Malaysia as a Western capitalist society, and to deny its multi-racial, multi-religious nature. The orchestra is another evasion of these truths. While millions are poured into an imported musical culture, our own music is dying." Both these commentators want to see the Malaysian Philharmonic incorporate local instruments, and local musical forms. Since they have potential allies in Bakels and Chean Si, this reasonable wish may come true.

But the proof of the pudding is in the eating. Last week, after a ceremonial drum-roll by the Prime Minister, the new hall was christened. It's quite small and very pretty, reminiscent of Birmingham's Symphony Hall; its acoustics aren't right yet, but that's normal. And the orchestra was very decent for a first outing: Strauss, Rachmaninov and Ravel, plus two pieces of entirely forgivable tokenism. There being no world-class Malaysian violin prodigy, 13-year-old Yura Lee was imported from Korea to dazzle us, and dazzle she did; on the other hand, the "Malaysian Overture" by an indigenous young composer was a bit of a hoot (Rimsky-Korsakov not so much pastiched as lifted in chunks).

This whole ambitious exercise may be an artificial transplant carried out by an act of political will but, put in the wider Asian context, it prompts an arresting thought. As Western symphonic tradition runs out of steam, a new one may now be rising in the East.