Music Uncategorized

An Orchestral Heritage: Reflecting on Malaysia’s Relationship with the Grand Ensemble

ORCHESTRAS are instrumental ensembles that are made up of different instruments to typically play classical music. These instruments come from different families, and are grouped in sections. The main families are strings, brass, woodwinds and percussion. Orchestras are led by conductors and the bigger the orchestra, the more instruments it has, allowing for more recitations and performances of more complex symphonies.

Depending on its size, orchestras will carry different names. Chamber orchestras are smaller orchestras that play chamber music, and depending on the size of the chamber they are playing in may feature up to 50 musicians. Symphony orchestras are full size ensembles that employs at least 70 musicians and up to over a hundred musicians, equipped to play a range complex and extensive classical music scores. Other types of orchestras also exist, like the amateur orchestra that is made up of school students. There are also youth orchestras and community orchestras, and even smaller ones like big band orchestras that play more popular and modern music.

The instrumentation in orchestras have expanded over time, and its earliest form of the symphony orchestra was seen in Claudio Monteverdi‘s opera Orfeo. It was standardized around the Classical era of classical music under Beethoven’s influence. Sometimes a fifth section is added to include instruments such as the piano or some other electric and electronic instruments. A standard orchestra usually contains all the standard instruments in each group. Some of the most historical and prestigious orchestras around the world are the Berlin Philharmonic, the Vienna Philharmonic and the London Symphony orchestras.

ORCHESTRAL 01
Though the Malaysian Philharmonic Orchestra is known throughout the country, Malaysia as a nation never had much of an orchestral tradition prior to the pre-independence Western music boom.

Malaysia have a fairly young orchestral history. Our first orchestra was the RTM Jazz Orchestra. It was a small orchestra – a 13-piece big band founded and led by the legendary Alfonso Soliano in 1961. Initially named Orkes Radio Malaysia, it was set up to play and record for broadcasting purposes before expanding its size to 30 musicians. It holds the distinction of being the finest jazz orchestra in the country and have traveled the world to play. Its most famous musician outside of the late Alfonso Soliano was Dato Ahmad Nawab.

We also have the National Symphony Orkestra or more commonly known as OSK (Orkestra Simfoni Kebangsaan). They are an ensemble of distinguished classical musicians based in the prestigious Istana Budaya. Formed with just 17 full time professional musicians in 1989 by the Kementerian Kebudayaan, Kesenian dan Pelancongan, the OSK now has over 30 active members and regularly tours as a whole and even as separate sections, like its Wind Ensemble for example.

A more recent orchestra is the Malaysian Philhamornic Orchestra, resident at the Dewan Filharmonik Petronas. It was formed in 1997 as part of Petronas CSR to the local arts industry and was the jewel in the crown of its artistic efforts, which included the Petronas Art Gallery and the Petronas Performing Arts Group. The MPO, as its popularly called, features international musicians and conductors, setting it apart from its local peers.

There is also the Malaysian Philharmonic Youth Orchestra (MPYO) that accompanies the MPO, and others such as the Selangor Symphony Orchestra and Penang Philharmonic Orchestra.


va_01.1
Malaysia’s earliest orchestra. Flickr
Orchestras are synonymous with classical music.

In Malaysia, classical music – in its Western guise – is a fairly recent, post-Merdeka interest. Looking back at our cultural heritage and history, most classical music indigenous to this country are closely related to our performing arts, mainly the major theatrical forms.

Discussions and conversations about classical music in Malaysia must include a segment to mention our own traditional music forms, and these forms are played by ensembles to complement our major theatrical forms, namely the wayang kulit, the makyong and mek mulung dance dramas, the bangsawan operas, the randai performances and the Chinese opera and hand-puppet theatres.

A lot of the ensembles playing the musical score and accompaniment to these feature drums and gongs, with the only instrument providing a melodic drive to be a wind or stringed instrument such as the serunai, rebab or bangsi flute. These ensembles are essentially chamber orchestras, and that is fitting given the venue and stages of the theatres and dramas they accompany. They feature mostly traditional indigenous local instruments. The bangsawan orchestra, on the other hand, while also essentially a chamber orchestra, features a mixture of local traditional and modern instruments from the Western, Arab and Indian worlds.

These are not the only orchestral forms in this country. If we dig deeper, we will find ensembles a permanent feature in our culture, reflecting our rich folk and syncretic musical heritage. Be it the royal Nobat, the trance-like gamelan to the bounce of ghazal, boria and later joget of the common folk, these ensembles fill the sonic landscape in our society with lush beats and delicate and subtle harmonies.

gamelan-orchestra-and-dancers-take-to-the-stage.1.large_
The gamelan orchestra has fans all around the world, as evident in this 2001 performance by college students from Delaware. Source: Flickr

These tunes however, are often not the feature in many of the local orchestras previously mentioned above. The reason is perhaps training – these orchestras are inherently Western, and all efforts to revive and retrace our musical heritage comes under that lens. Their origins and home are also a possible factor – they do not exist on their own, living on the periphery of the theatrical and drama performances they complement. As a result, they are left behind, and are learned by music historian as relics of our past, struggling to find relevance and footing in this current day and age outside of the occasional irama melayu categories in music programmes or sampling in radio hits.

It is interesting reflecting on this – that while we may not have a rich codified history of our musical heritage it has survived nevertheless, its only fault being a lack of documentation and archiving culture in the past.

With the advent of the internet and social media exponentially increasing music’s accessibility and exposure perhaps that will change. Efforts to popularize and make classical music relevant such as the Chineke! Orchestra in Europe aligning classical music to social issues and the Petronas Performing Arts Group archiving all traditional local theatrical art forms are key – in time, we might just be able to ensure that these orchestras, and music, will be relevant and remembered by future generations.


This article is written conjunction with the upcoming 2017 Johor Bahru Classical Music Festival. Presented by Johor Bahru: International Festival City (JB: IFC) with the theme “In Sync”, the festival aims to explore classical music’s universality and emphasize its relevance as an avenue for storytelling. Enjoy a fine selection of inspiring local and international performances and classes from 27th – 29th July. Find out more from JBIFC.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: