2015 PSPA International Ensemble - The Journey
“Benjamin, may I know how you learn music?” “Well, I have a good teacher when I first get involved in music.” “Oh, how so?” “Whatever sound I make from my violin, he just say good. As long as you can make sound out of it, it is good……”
Then, a few days later he shared another muse with the students in Yuk Choy:
“When you practice your instrument, you just cannot simply separate passion and technique as both have to be in-sync and together when you play. Don’t think too much about these things, just practice and play.”
With that, this young Hong Kong prodigy ended up as yours truly's favourite musician in this year’s ensemble. Well, perhaps commonality in size plays a high influential factor as well. He played the viola together with Dr. Andrew Filmer in the ensemble.
Since 2007, Perak Society of Performing Arts (“PSPA”) has organised a yearly musical ensemble whereby internationally renowned musicians from both local and abroad are invited to perform in Malaysia. Under the tutelage of Eugene Pook, the ensemble is well known for its innovative and versatile music selection to vow and entertain the audience. For this year, we did not realise it is going to be one of the best.
Apart from the guest clarinetist, Mr. Andrew Simon, all the 11 musicians together with Eugene , our Ipoh-borne music director, arrived at Sarong Paloh, their home during the whole two-week music program for Ipoh and Eugene led everybody to a quick ice-breaking session by having, well, snow beer dinner nearby as most of the musicians have yet to meet and know each other before this. To cut it short, everyone was very “happy" that night.
We soon realised most musicians were not early birds as attendance for 9am breakfast was rather ‘disappointing’. The first event i.e. the press conference and subsequent photo shoot session showed us how their life style pattern was.
In contrast, any suggestion for supper after 11pm was met with high enthusiasm, in total contrast to most committee members and volunteers who are mainly early birds, though age may have something to do with this too.
The music notes have yet to fully compiled for the musicians before their arrival and by the first rehearsal, it is still coming in. Despite the time constraint, when they started their first group rehearsal session, the volunteers who stayed on to help were completely mesmerised by the flow and the layering of their play. We knew by then this is going to be an extraordinary musical rendezvous with these outstanding talents!
The jaw-dropping session was proven again in the following night where we had an open rehearsal for the public, sort of peek-a-boo session before the concert, and despite the bad weather and late start, the hall was completely filled to the brim and the musicians continued to display their talents unselfishly to audiences’ ears. It was quite a sight to listen to these timeless classical music with them donning shorts, flip flops and t-shirts; and certainly a rare moment for the usually dead quiet old town to enjoy the echo of brilliant musical notes filling up the air and enlighten the hearts of the residents and audiences alike.
The local hospitality was clearly shown here as there were people who brought durians for the musicians and everybody has to endure a “smelly” rehearsal that night.
In order to achieve a total sell out crowd, the Organising Chair (“OC”) Jin Hann or “Woody”, as we now called him since he keeps “knocking” on Viber till the wee hours, has taken the bold step to sell tickets online in the new PSPA online store and also to give huge discounts to lure students to the concert. Needless to say, the initial chaos was inevitable with all the pre-generation X and Y aunties and uncles struggling to access the store, book tickets and make payment, even our evergreen Witzi has to sit down obediently to learn through the steps.
Alas, the noise has finally subsided with Woody patiently guiding the committee over the new era. The result was certainly encouraging, two months before the concert, the tickets were already 80% sold and fully sold out with less than a month to go. This has lift a huge burden off the committee so that they can now focus solely on preparing for the concert and certainly a huge morale boast to the team.
Let's introduce our this year's musicians during their stay here with us:
Don’t be fooled by chirpy birds Christina Zhou and Bernice Ooi because when they picked up their violin and play, it is certainly “no play play” for them. The fact that the Rin Family Collection from Singapore entrusted “The-good-girl-next-door” Christina with a priceless violin under her care and the way she handled “Spring” in the “Four Seasons” only proof that she is no fluke.
Bernice is a strong player and the permanent “love” mark on her neck testifies her commitment to music, also a sign of prolong practice with her instrument. Her strong and muscular shoulder and bicep only further remind us not to arm wrestle with her. She showed her prowess while playing “Winter” in the “ Four Seasons” where she did not miss a beat in this fast tempo musical arrangement.
The cool and collected Gabriel Lee was very popular among the female audiences because he resembles Hong Kong star Chi Lam but do not be fooled by his looks. He plays an 1837 Aldric on loan from the Rin Family Collection and has left for Baltimore after the ensemble to pursue his Masters.
Dr. Alina’s first time visit led to her stomach protesting to our local food at the beginning though that did not diminish her positive and friendly attitude. In fact, she was a very popular figure among the students and was always surrounded by interestingly, male students, during the private session.
Her flute rendition of "Carmen Fantasy" and the theme song from “Cinema Paradiso” were simply heart warming and splendid. In “Cinema Paradiso”, the combination of piano and flute was just magnificent as it brought out the downbeat mood of this classic movie where the protagonist was depressed and negative despite his career success until the very end where he has to come to terms with himself. Go watch the movie if you want to appreciate the music and Dr. Alina’s skills.
The meticulous Dr. Andrew Filmer was Woody’s role model because it reminds him the way he works though with very contrasting hair style. Dr. Andrew was the only one who has gone through the music notes in detailed and posted questions even before the musicians gathered and met in Ipoh. He continued that attitude by providing positive feedback during rehearsal and added on the verbal intro for the “Four Seasons” so that the audience can have a better understanding on the musical piece. Playing the lead viola, he provided strong support to the string section and in the “Rondo Gypsy” quartet we can hear how strong his technique is.
As a lecturer in a local university, the ever knowledgeable Dr. Andrew also shared generously his thoughts with his peers and the juniors and we are sure most will come out smarter and wiser after spending time with him. We were glad with his invaluable contribution and input.
Roeland the steady-hand cellist is the oldest in the group but with a young heart nevertheless when we met his young girlfriend who drove all the way on concert night to watch her darling played and performed. We can see the “Peter Pan” in him during the warming up session and a subsequent high quality performance from this Malaysia-based Dutch musician.
Boston-based Kett Chuan was here during the inaugural ensemble back in 2007 and he came back again this year after a seven-year absence. An accomplished cellist and this was evident when he played with his compatriot Roeland and we thought we were seeing double during all the sessions when they sat and played together. Kett Chuan is also very enthusiastic when it comes to sharing and teaching the young and even suggested to us how we can make “Meet The Musicians” session more constructive and spoke positively to the students and encouraged them. We were grateful for his input. Interestingly, Kett Chuan’s father is from Ipoh as well though they have since moved to Kuala Lumpur.
Jae Sern has been a regular in the ensemble and this is the third time he is here. A self-confessed foodie junkie, he did not mince his word when he said he came back here because of food and our warm hospitality. The KL-based Jae Sern is one of the top local violinist and highly sought after both in the local and international music scenes.
He did not even refer to his music notes when he play “Summer” in the “Four Seasons” and his fingers managed to bring out the anxiety of the farmers worrying whether the storm is coming to damage the growing crops. (Thanks to Dr. Andrew) His awesomeness was in full display. Ever friendly and ready to chat, he is a crowd puller especially among the aunties. His popularity here score as high as his skill and Eugene has no hesitation to call him back whenever he can.
Soon Yee the double bass player was the only Ipoh-based musician in the ensemble and he did us proud by matching his talent note-by-note with the rest of the members. Though his financial background did not allow him to travel the seven seas like the rest, it did not deter him to continue his passion back home.
He is now a full-time music director for various school bands and he continues his ambition to teach music to the younger generation. To him, material rewards pale in comparison to the enjoyment in seeing his understudies achieve success in their musical journey.
As the sole double bass player, his pace and timing is critical as any mistakes will be clearly audible and despite the lack of stage performance for the past twenty years, even Eugene has singled him out in one of the closing speeches as outstanding and gave him the compliments he highly deserved. His students also gave him a warm applause whenever his name was introduced to the crowed, another strong testimonial to his popularity here.
Needless to say, the affable pianist Dr. Jeremy stamped his class in Johannes Brahms’ “Gypsy Rando” in the piano quartet, leading the three string players - Jae Sern in violin, Dr. Andrew in viola and Roeland in cello - and played to a climatic intermission before letting the audience off to grasp a breather.
But it was Yiruma’s contemporary “River Flow In You” and “Kiss The Rain” that stole everybody’s heart. While the music piece has been rearranged to suit the ensemble and ‘tilt' towards the classical sense, yet Dr. Jeremy managed to balance up the tempo without making it sound too ‘boring' and he is as good as Yiruma himself. Why? The solo piano intro already melted the hearts of the ladies, including Jin Hann. Even until now he is still talking about it. Yucks!
The music director and one of Ipoh’s favourite local boy, Eugene Pook, has decided to compose the more popular masterpieces for this year’s ensemble with the aim to reach out to a wider and particularly younger audience. This jives well with what PSPA has planned. Nevertheless, it was not an easy task as the music director needs to balance up the music selection while making sure the invited musicians get to showcase their talent and keep the audience going. Needless to say, he has accomplished this mission magnificently, mixing classical with contemporary music and yet still retain the element of classical music in the whole program. The introduction of Mr. Andrew Simon, his clarinet teacher, was a stroke of genius as it brings the crowd to their feet with such superb world-class performance.
Well, the inclusion of Mr. Andrew Simon was the icing of the cake. Even though he only played two songs - including “Summertime” for the encore - but the crowd was not short-changed. He was in full control of the tempo and tonality for the two pieces and the way he manages the lows, the highs and the mute were simply out of this world and clearly demonstrates why he remains with the Hong Kong Philharmonic Orchestra as the principal clarinetist for more than 25 years.
His presence in this year’s ensemble is blessed. All his CDs were fully sold out at the end of the concert and he has very sportingly autographed all the purchase.
As part of their social duties, the ensemble has also picked SMJK Yuk Choy and Presatuan Daybreak as their “Meet The Musicians” session in Ipoh in an effort to promote classical music and music appreciation to the community.
It was Yuk Choy’s first to hold such a session so everybody in the school was excited especially the school principal himself, Mr. Chan, who stood at the school gate and waited for the entourage early in the morning. It was an honour for the school to receive such talented musicians and they were ushered into the newly completed auditorium jam packed with teenage boys and girls.
Eugene spoke warmly to the kids about the ensemble and what it aims to achieve and the musicians then took turns to speak about themselves and gave words of encouragement, with short performances in between.
When Dr. Andrew mentioned that he missed the days when the students stand up and greet the teacher every time the teacher walks into class, the school principal very sportingly asked the whole audience to stand up and greet Dr. Andrew as a teacher. Everyone was bursting very laughter but it was a warm moment indeed as Dr. Andrew has got his ‘fantasy' fulfilled unexpectedly.
That certainly was the ice-breaker and the audience and musicians were now starting to warm up their seats but then there was a power trip and we have to continue the session without electricity. This has now become an “unplugged” session and Dr. Jeremy did not have a chance at all to showcase his keyboard skills to the kids.
However, the violinists make up for the disappointment by showcasing how a change in music note can turn a song into either a happy or sad tone by just playing “Twinkle Twinkle Little Star”. We don’t about the kids but the adult audience were certainly enlighten by such explanation and demonstration.
At the end of the session, the musicians were greeted with simple refreshments and it was then the school kids started to come forward and asked questions and Dr. Alina was certainly the favourite among the crowd. Email addresses were exchanged and group selfies were taken before Eugene “coerced” everybody back to the bus for the next program.
It was during the visit to Persatuan Day Break where all musicians let their hair down and joined the crowd towards the end and danced with the special privileged kids accompanied by live classical musical performance. If you do not believe in the power of healing by music, then one should witness the expression of joy and happiness shown in the face of these kids.
They did not know who these musicians and how talented and famous they are, but when the music started, they closed their eyes and enjoyed these harmonic melody that soothe their hearts and then reacted cheerily when a fast tempo music was played. At the end, everybody was on their feet and the staff were touched by these kind souls who came and spent time with the unfortunate.
The musicians also conducted workshop sessions with Tenby International School where the students get first hand knowledge in finessing their skills.
After a successful first performance, the ensemble traveled north to Penang and did a show before coming back to perform in front of His Royal Highness Sultan Nazrin Shah, the Sultan of Perak to mark the celebration for his recent coronation and an act of appreciation as he has gracefully agreed to be the royal patron for the society.
This was held in Syeun Hotel and needless to say, they can only be better in performing as a team by now and the royal family, VIPs and guests had a wonderful evening soaked in their beautiful musical melody. At the end, His Royal Highness has even asked to meet the musicians impromptu. This surprise act was certainly the best testimonial for the musicians in recognition of their brilliance. During the opening speech, the President of the society, Datin Rosalina Ooi has showcased our dream, the Bamboo Theatre as the performing art centre for Perak, to the audience and hope this will come into fruition in the near future. Fingers crossed.
So, after months of preparation, the committee was glad that this year’s ensemble has ended with a bang and achieved many “firsts”. Not only we managed to achieve a sell out concert, we managed to break even as well. Needless to say, our "long hair" has now become "long and grey hair” Jin Hann and many panda-eyed committee members.
Despite the difficult economic condition but with diligent planning and undying persistency (a.k.a. thick-skin policy), we have managed to bring in new sponsors to make this a financially viable endeavour. All the musicians came here pro bono and without their generosity and sincerity, all this would not be possible and the people in Kinta Valley would not be able to enjoy music of such high standard at home.
There were no handkerchief waving and tears-dropping moments when they left Ipoh as they still have one final show in Sunway University before the ensemble dispersed. So, it was the usual scrambling moment - for seats and baggages - where the musicians were rushing to KL to meet their final obligations. Nevertheless, there were still moments of warmth for people who came and bid farewell to the musicians, with lots of hugging and fly kisses.
We only hope to see and hear more from these musicians and sincerely wish them well in all their future undertakings. With the 10th Ensemble coming next year, Eugene has promised bigger and better things to come.
So, Woody, what say you?
Article written by : CP Lo from Yi Galleria