Dewan Filharmonik Petronas’ concert organist Marc Rochester shares anecdotes about his career and expounds on the role of the pipe organ at the concert hall.
MARC Rochester’s name may not light up the eyes of the casual music fan. What’s more, at a glance, he looks like a jovial English bus driver who’s only too happy to take you to your destination, rather than a musician (as a matter of fact, he really did drive London’s double decker buses for a while to finance his post graduate studies).
But mention the pipe organ, and his name takes much greater significance. For music fans who’ve walked in and out of Kuala Lumpur’s Dewan Filharmonik Petronas (DFP), Rochester is definitely a known entity. He’s the man most often seen behind the monstrous German-made Klais pipe organ (out-fitted with a thematic angklung facade) there.
Few people simply wake up one morning and miraculously harbour the ambition of becoming a concert organist. After all, it’s not one of the more common vocations. Rochester’s story on being smitten by the instrument, however, is slightly different. “The most obvious thing is it’s solitary ... you only have one organ. But I’ve always wanted to be an organist because it makes an incredible amount of noise,” says the musician candidly during a recent private interview.
He concedes that his bashfulness allowed him to communicate through the instrument better than he would be able to verbally. Or as he eloquently puts it: “It mends a personality defect.” Rochester’s description of his inadequacies sounds utterly outrageous given his bubbly personality – you’d never think of him as shy, that’s for sure.
It’s probably this sense of self-proclaimed reticence that allows him to be an extrovert on his instrument of choice. Behind the organ, the University Of Wales music graduate can hit the lowest and highest notes or be the loudest or softest in an orchestra.
“The ambition is to have the power and control. It’s like a person who wants to drive a Lamborghini or Ferrari on Malaysian roads ... there’s absolutely no point. When that novelty wears off, you begin to love the challenge of turning a machine into a musical instrument,” describes the 56-year-old on how his love for the instrument evolved over the years.
He reckons organists are boring people (which is in total contrast to himself) and opines that other musicians usually hate the organ. “Here in Malaysia, 10 years on, and the pipe organ is still having new audiences. There may have been one or two pipe organs here during Colonial times but definitely nothing since DFP came into the picture,” he said, and cleared the myth that organs are instruments for churches.
“My job was to bring in audiences and we’ve done so to an extent by playing pieces which combine the machine and musical instrument characteristics of the organ. During our early years, we used to advertise the organist as going from a whisper to thunder.”
Rochester plays a range of musical instruments, including the violin, piano, French horn and Celtic harp. His past as a music examiner allows him to generate at least a few notes on any of these instruments. “I can do it in private, at least,” he quips. He offers that the organ – which is a highly sophisticated machine – isn’t as intimate an instrument as the others he plays. “Also, when you play, inevitably, your back is to the audience, which means you lose that face-to-face contact.”
As one of the few concert organists in the world (organs aren’t too common in orchestral pieces simply because they aren’t featured as much), Rochester shares this lingering nightmare with all of them. “I have this recurring nightmare where when I am supposed to start a piece quietly, I accidentally hit the wrong button and the music comes in blaring. I wake up in cold sweats in the middle of the night because of this,” jokes the hilarious musician.
He picked up on the instrument inspired by his organist father. The English education system encouraged him to join a choir, and the organ – a long-standing instrument in that environment – was naturally exposed to Rochester. “I got my first lesson from my father. You can’t play the organ until you’re physically big enough because you need to reach the pedals. So I suppose I was about 10 or 11 when I started.”
He was the youngest person (at 24 years of age) to ever hold the position of Organist And Master Of Choristers at a British cathedral when he was appointed to Londonderry Cathedral in Northern Ireland. “It wasn’t something I was terribly surprised with because I think I was the only person willing to go to a war-torn country. But I wouldn’t advise anyone to do it at this age because you’re going to have to deal with the politics and sensitivities, which is tough when you’re young.”
From the very start, he’s had an insatiable appetite for music. “I now have about 7,800 CDs, and LPs too, but very little organ music because, as I mentioned earlier, most players are boring and tedious. I’m a jazz fanatic,” he admits.
Rochester has based himself in Malaysia since 1987, when he arrived in Kuching and eventually found his way into the peninsula in 1995 after he was appointed by Universiti Pertanian Malaysia (UPM) as a lecturer in music.
His gig at DFP as its concert organist came about when Tan Sri Azizan Zainul Abidin, Chairman, Petronas, Malaysia, became involved in the project of wanting to start an orchestra. “An English company conducted a survey to see the viability of setting up an orchestra here. They weren’t sure if people in Malaysia were incredibly advanced or still swinging from trees. When the venue was being constructed, I was in the background writing all the concert notes for DFP. One day, I saw a picture of the hall design and saw an organ, but they said it was just a dummy. At some point it went from being a dummy to a real organ.”
And with his innate knowledge of the instrument, Rochester naturally became the best candidate for his current gig as concert organist at DFP, even though he stopped playing the instrument for nearly 10 years prior. The excitement of playing before a new audience became a temptation too good to resist, he says.
“For the first season, many big name organists were brought in but they drew no substantial audiences. And some of the American organists who were brought down naturally indulged in their culture, which was church music, which was a problem, so I had to revise the whole thing and came up with the informal afternoon shows,” Rochester reveals.
DFP commissioned the first piece of organ – Journeys – music written by Malaysian composer Vivian Chua in 2002. Nearly 10 years on, and the pipe organ culture is steadily catching on here.
But how significant is the instrument at the hall? “A concert hall without a pipe organ rules itself out of some of the most spectacular repertory and, in many people’s minds, a hall without a pipe organ is not a proper concert hall. In our history, some of the most memorable concerts have involved the pipe organ: Gustav Mahler’s Second Symphony, Pines of Rome, Camille Saint-Saens’ Third Symphony, Edward Elgar’s Enigma Variations, Vaughan Williams’ A Sea Symphony, and many more.”
Rochester goes on to vouch that the instrument’s removal would simply ruin the hall. “It has attracted huge interest from Malaysians. It was even featured in a Discovery Channel documentary (also aired on RTM 1) in the New Malaysian Documentary Makers series, fronted by Penang teacher Leonard Selva. So far, some 12 students from Malaysia have learnt the organ at DFP. Artistically, removing the organ would make the hall very third-world indeed!”
The success of the outreach programmes by DFP has increased the Klais organ’s stature. “The programme runs several organ-related events. The innovative ‘Organ Day’, in which hundreds of school students were allowed to explore the inner workings of the organ, was the most successful, but we have also done several school programmes with the organ – “Colours of the Organ, The King of Instruments” – as well as family fun days (including one which included a competition between the MPO and the organ to see which could play louder, softer, higher, lower and could hold its breath the longest ... the organ won on every count!). This created a very enthusiastic and young audience for the pipe organ,” he explains.
Seeing the kids wide-eyed with amazement is truly a treat and he says kids are always curious to hear the lowest note on an organ. “You can’t even hear it, it just rumbles, and the children love that. Of course, they also want to hear the highest note. They also like to hear the softest and loudest volumes,” he shares enthusiastically.
As far as his own experience with pipe organs around the world is concerned, Rochester has played some interesting specimens. “The most impressive one is probably the one at Truro Cathedral in Cornwall ... it’s just one of those organs where everything worked. It was one of those organs that grew organically ... it wasn’t architect-designed.”
Specifically for the organ, the most impressive venue he’s played at is The Royal Albert Hall in London, which houses the second largest pipe organ in Britain.
“I’m sorry for being Anglo-centric but it’s absolutely fantastic. For years, I accompanied a male voice choir in Wales, and every year, all the male choirs gather at the Royal Albert Hall, and so you have 2000 voices singing, and accompanying those voices is just the most exciting thing I’ve ever experienced.” Marc Rochester’s upcoming organ recitals at Dewan Filharmonik Petronas are on April 3 and July 16. Browse dfp.com.my for more information.