LAST week saw the 2017 Johor Bahru Classical Music Festival (JBCMF) take place at the southern capital. It received very positive response from the Johor Bahru music community and general public – averaging at least 80% attendance across all 4 concerts in its programme, with their masterclasses and public lectures proving popular with their target audience.
Their programming was curated with strong artistic and educational direction, celebrating diversity and relevance with the festival theme ‘IN SYNC’. The performance programming is a strong lineup of collaborating performers from Spain, Japan, France, Thailand ably supported by local artists and musicians, playing music and instruments from both Western and Eastern history and traditions spanning at least 100 years. The educational content included interviews, masterclasses and a public lecture on how Star Wars has kept classical music relevant in our times.
It was a quiet success, and after three relatively successful years the festival arrives at a juncture. It has to start charting its future, not just to secure its sustainability and longevity, but also to expand and consolidate its relevance and impact to the Johor Bahru arts community and greater general public.
It has to be ready and willing to face relevant questions from not just the general classical music fan but also from its passionate practitioners and advocates, not to mention observers from the society. These questions can be about the representation of local and Malaysian talent in its programming, or the place for Malaysian or Eastern traditional music in the festival.
The JBCMF is an annual classical music festival organized by Johor Bahru: International Festival City (JB:IFC). It was conceived when the organizers of the Johor Bahru Arts Festival (JBAF) felt that the niche demand for classical music and orchestral performances has grown enough to warrant its own space, a space that is big enough to be its own festival next to its established elder sibling the JBAF.
“After doing the (Johor Bahru) Arts Festival for around 15 years we came to point where we realized that some of our content have matured and needs a bigger space, and the banner of the Arts Festival cannot really support it in the way it needs. So we when decided to organize the Classical Music Festival we knew we needed something bigger to tie it together.” begins Yap Siong Cheng, the president and founder of the Johor Society for the Performing Arts (JSPA). JSPA started the Johor Bahru Ars Festival in the early 2000s. Mr Yap, as he was introduced to me, was stylish – despite his obvious seniority, he rocked his long, graying locks free with a blazer that complimented his white shirt and worn out jeans. We chatted outside the ballroom of the Amari Johor Bahru as festival volunteers and committee members were helping clean up the ballroom after the Dr Andrew Filmer’s lecture.
“We felt that after 16 years of extensive experience running the JBAF it was time to evolve into something bigger, that can serve the greater arts community in Johor Bahru more. That’s how the Johor Bahru: International Festival City came about.” JBAF is one of the oldest running city-based festival in the country, but despite all its traditions and history, the decision made perfect sense. JB:IFC is an entity that isn’t a festival nor a society, but a bigger overarching entity with strong branding that can pull in state and corporate support to consolidate everything it does. The JSPA is a communal entity, very grassroots and and has limited reach, while the JBAF is purely an event and has difficulty establishing sustainable relationships with strategic partners in the ecosystem.
It did not take long for the state and corporate support to arrive. JB:IFC have had high-profile state, private and corporate support since its inception – the Amari Johor Bahru is the official venue and accommodation partner of JBCMF 2017, UEM Sunrise is the festival’s premier partner and IRDA (Iskandar Regional Development Authority) is a strategic partner, but they’re not necessarily the most valuable support received. That came not long after JB:IFC was founded, from none other than the Johor royal family itself.
Now the Johor Bahru: International Festival City operates under the Royal Patronage of Her Highness Tunku Tun Aminah binti Sultan Ibrahim.
Dr Andrew Filmer’s is the festival’s educational content curator, and his curatorship was commendable. He didn’t have much room to navigate, and did his best to ensure a comprehensive programme. A two-part interview a two-part interview with two major examination boards (the Associated Board of the Royal Schools of Music and Trinity College London) covered music certifications and beyond, masterclasses on the role of the piano and violin-making covered instruments and a public lecture on how Star Wars has kept classical music relevant in our times panders to the enthusiastic pop culture consumer in all of us.
His Star Wars public lecture, in particular, was a delightful hour of historical discovery and passionate advocacy of classical music in charming geekishness. His knowledge of classical music was only bettered by his well-prepared lecture and delivery, if not the presence of 6 Star Wars Malaysia Fan Club (SWMFC) members in various Jedi and Sith costumes brandishing their replica lightsabres.
In that one hour I learned that film music had classical roots which lasts till today. The earliest film music composers came from classical/art musicians and John Williams – the distinguished composer credited for many of the iconic Star Wars themes – drew many of his early inspirations from the film scoring of King’s Row. I also learned that many of the memorable Star Wars tunes and melodies are clear contemporary examples of classical music techniques such as the leitmotif (used for the Force Motif) and the ostinato (evident in Darth Maul’s score). Dr Andrew even broke down some of these melodies and via some nifty rearrangements, demonstrated that they were present in music from other popular films and series such as Star Trek and Game Of Thrones.
These are compelling examples of classical music being not just relevant but also significant today. Listening to Dr. Andrew, I realized that the leitmotifs and ostinatos are everywhere – in the licks and hooks of pop music, jingles or about any musical form we consume nowadays.
This was echoed by the festival’s artistic curator Jonathan Oh. “Classical music is everywhere. It’s all around us. And nowadays we just miss it; we take it for granted. This festival is us doing our part to try and show people that no matter how expensive or elitist classical music looks, it is anything but irrelevant.” Mr Yap echoes Jonathan’s remark. “The problem is with music education. Kids nowadays are not picking up instruments to enjoy themselves; to play. They are told to do it as a hobby; a life skill. (As a result) whatever interest and curiosity they may have had are lost to long practices and recitations that they don’t really understand. The magic of music is lost in translation to them.”
“Music, and art, is about expression. Upholding the knowledge and tradition is important, but it will not live (on) if it is not experienced, and enjoyed. Everything we have been listening to all our lives came from classical music, and this festival is just us doing our bit to help bridge this gap and perception that classical music seems so far away; it’s not.” Jonathan emphatically concludes.
As I reflected on Jonathan’s words, I remembered what Foo Chie Haur, the flute player from the National Symphony Orchestra (NSO) Wind Ensemble said during the Jazz Up – Rhapsody in Blue concert on the previous evening. “The music we will be playing tonight are some of the most famous and popular tunes ever, composed by Gershwin. We will have heard these music somewhere before, and not know their names or history. But we are familiar (with them).” Indeed, and I have the JB:IFC to thank for that. As Julian Chan, the saxophone solo for the night, pointed out in his interview last week,
“It’s about impact. That’s what music has always been. So as long as music can still affect, be it via performance or musicianship or composition, it will always be relevant.”
Thank you Johor Bahru Classical Music Festival. See you next year.
This article is written conjunction with the recently concluded 2017 Johor Bahru Classical Music Festival. Presented by Johor Bahru: International Festival City (JB: IFC) with the theme “In Sync”, the festival aimed to explore classical music’s universality and emphasize its relevance as an avenue for storytelling. Find out more about other upcoming festivals in 2017 from JBIFC.