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September 7, 1998


The Band Begins To Play
Kuala Lumpur's new concert hall and philharmonic orchestra strike high notes in these low times

By Jennifer Gampell

The irony was hard to miss. Barely a week after Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad had called on Malaysians to pawn their valuables abroad and bring home precious foreign currency, Kuala Lumpur's rich and famous were in full regalia at the city's brand new concert hall, the Dewan Filharmonik Petronas. Mahathir was there too, in an unwonted tuxedo. The call for belt-tightening, it seemed, didn't extend to cummerbunds.

To be fair, it could be argued that the occasion warranted the finery: the Aug. 17 opening of the concert hall also marked the inaugural performance by the Malaysian Philharmonic Orchestra. In addition, it coincided with the 24th anniversary of the founding of Petronas, the state-owned oil company. Appropriately, Petronas picked up the tab: an estimated $60 million for the hall, built on the ground level of the company's 88-story, twin-tower headquarters, and millions more for the 105-member multinational orchestra. (Petronas won't be more specific, but the players' annual salaries are said to be in the $40,000-to-$50,000 range.)

From the classical-music lover's point of view, the money was well spent. The 885-seat hall is a world-class concert arena, complete with a computer-controlled ceiling comprising seven 15-ton panels that can be adjusted individually to change the sound quality. The result: superb acoustics. A single tinkle of a triangle resonates with the same clarity as the entire violin section--or a cough in the audience. The hall has extensive recording and broadcasting facilities (including 19 camera positions) and a stunning floor-to-ceiling pipe organ, the first built in Malaysia.

The orchestra might not be quite as grand--it's short on players of international renown--but it has been built with as much care. Last year, 600 musicians culled from 3,500 applicants auditioned in 13 cities across Europe, the United States and Australia. Music director Kees Bakels, who is from the Netherlands, selected his team on skill rather than experience. Or nationality. The 105 members come from 22 countries; only four musicians and the resident conductor, Ooi Chean See, are Malaysian. Some musicians have never played before with a professional orchestra. Others, like former Berlin Philharmonic double-bass player Wolfgang Steike, gave up prestigious positions to play in KL. Bakels himself has been a guest conductor of symphony orchestras in Bournemouth and Quebec.

The combination worked well in the inaugural performance. For his audience of dignitaries, Bakels chose a repertoire of evergreens by Strauss, Rachmaninoff and Ravel, as well as a flowery symphonic overture by Aaron Alfred Lee, a young Malaysian composer living in the U.S. The highlight of the evening was a performance of Pablo Sarasate's Carmen Fantasy by the brilliant Yura Lee, a 13-year-old violin prodigy from South Korea. The critics were impressed. "It's on the way to becoming--if it isn't already--the best orchestra in Southeast Asia, and that includes Auckland and Melbourne," raved Hans-Theodor Wohlfahrt, who reviews classical music for German, Austrian and Swiss publications. Members of other orchestras in the region marveled at the state-of-the-art concert hall. "We didn't start out like this," said an impressed Tisa Ng, general manager of the Singapore Symphony Orchestra.

That must be music to the ears of Petronas chairman Azizan Zainul Abidin, the prime mover behind the concert hall, and Mahathir's wife Siti Hasmah Ali, the orchestra's patron. The twin cultural projects were conceived in 1995, before the current economic crisis was a twinkle in George Soros' eye. And Azizan swears the orchestra won't go the way of other grand Malaysian projects that have been abandoned or postponed in the wake of the downturn. Petronas will pay "whatever it takes" to sustain the orchestra, he says. "This is a public service, not a money-making venture."

To encourage the public to enjoy the service, the orchestra's 1998-99 season will feature performances packaged into accessible themes like "Completely Piano" and "Very Violin." Tickets will start at a reasonable $6. At the moment, however, not many Malaysians even know of the orchestra's existence. "Oh, is there a concert hall in the same building?" asks Albern Abdullah, a young professional on his lunch hour at the adjoining Suria klcc shopping mall. "I guess it's good we have an orchestra, but I'd never go." At these prices, though, he may find it hard to resist


Copyright 2002 Jennifer Gampell