12 August 2011

Malaysian Organ News - The Final Chapter?

By one of those deliciously bitter ironies which, if you read it in a book you would put it down to artistic licence, in the same week that the organ programme at Dewan Filharmonik Petronas in Kuala Lumpur comes to an end after its successful 12-year run, Discovery Channel airs for the umpteenth time its remarkable documentary on the very instrument which is now about to fall silent, possibly for good.

With several transmissions a year both on Malaysian domestic television and on Discovery Channel internationally, the documentary about the DFP pipe organ – Pipe Dreams - has become, not only the most watched programme about pipe organs in Asia (if not the world) but remains the most powerful promotional tool that DFP has ever had, bringing the uniqueness and glories of this great concert hall to a far wider public than any internally-produced marketing campaign could.  And it all came into being because of the single-minded dedication and enthusiasm of a Penang schoolteacher.

A Spectacular Backdrop to the DFP stage
The story of the Klais organ at DFP should be well-known to avid readers of this blog.  In short, intended primarily as a visually stunning backdrop to the concert hall stage, my interference in the early days of the organ's existence ensured it actually got used on a regular basis and, after some pretty dismal solo recitals by luminaries of the organ world (the powers-that-be failed to realise that luminaries of the organ world were utter nonentities so far as the Malaysian concert-going public was concerned), I was able to devise a uniquely Malaysian programme which ensured the organ became an integral and, indeed, popular part of Malaysia's classical music scene.  It's worked hugely well until this week when, finally, the DFP management seems to have killed it off. 

In addition to the popular recitals of repertoire deliberately chosen to avoid any sense of the organ's association with the church, and the innovative programmes of organ chamber music concerts, the organ open days, the educational presentations and the active demonstrations of the workings of the biggest (and most expensive) single musical instrument in the country, I also persuaded the education department to include organ lessons in its prospectus.  The students were not always entirely suitable.  There was the airline pilot who rarely managed lessons because he was so often on the other side of the world, the school boy who only signed up for three lessons just so that he could add another instrument to his CV, the young girl who was so frightened of making a noise she never actually played a note in five lessons and another who simply didn't have the physical strength to press down on a single key and get it to sound, and the married man who had designs on one of the girls working in the DFP office and saw organ lessons – which necessarily take place in the late evening - as a means of getting closer to her without his wife knowing.

And then there was Leonard.

Leonard Selva had taught himself to play the organ in his local church in Penang, but he wanted to improve his skills.  Any teacher will tell you that self-taught is a recipe for disaster, especially in the more mature student, and the systematic undoing of all the damage done by unsupervised development of incorrect techniques is a daunting task.  But, having had so many utterly inappropriate pupils, I felt that at least Leonard knew what he was in for, so took him on.  He travelled down to KL from Penang every fortnight at his own expense, and had a habit of deciding what he would like to learn, rather than allowing me to devise an appropriate syllabus.  I quickly realised that when Leonard wanted to learn something, he would learn it, and if it required a complete undoing and rebuilding of technique, that did not faze him at all.  In short, he was living proof of these sayings about faith moving mountains and nothing being impossible.  We even got him through one of Trinity's performance certificates his examiner being Peter de Blois, organist of Auckland Cathedral and not a man likely to miss failings in technique or poor musicianship.

Then one day in 2007, Leonard mentioned that he had seen an advert asking for those with an ambition to become TV documentary-producers to come up with an idea directly associated with aspects of life in Malaysia which they could then present to a panel.  The winners would be given the full professional facilities and training to produce their documentary which would be aired on a series to be called First Time Film-Makers.  Leonard had done a lot of research into the history of pipe organs in Malaysia – he had even given a fascinating lecture on the subject at one of the DFP Organ Days – and wanted to suggest this as a documentary subject.  I'm afraid I poured cold water on the idea.  I suggested it was of limited interest, did not reflect the image of Malaysian life as the panel of judges (which included a government minister) would recognise it, and would make for some pretty dull television; after all, an organ looks and sounds mightily impressive but doesn't move around very much, which rather undermines its televisual attractiveness.  Leonard disagreed, and presented his plan to the panel with such conviction that they accepted it.

Somewhere along the line the story changed and, instead of Leonard presenting a documentary about the pipe organs of Malaysia, he himself became the subject of the documentary as it charted a story of how he had achieved an ambition to give a public recital on the DFP organ.  The organist in me felt a little disappointed that a documentary became a piece of semi-fiction, but it did allow lots of TV airtime to the spectacular inside of the DFP and plenty of close-ups of the organ itself.  I say semi-fiction, because Leonard had never expressed to me a desire to perform in public and when I had once suggested it, he had shown horror at the prospect.  However, better men than me were on the case, and we soon found we had to schedule at the very last minute a public recital for him.  In a response which the present-day management could never match (largely because it involves making a decision) the then DFP management moved heaven and earth to get it off the ground, and within days all had been arranged and the marketing machine (the indefatigable Harry) was in full swing with photos, media placings and posters.  So far as we were concerned at DFP this was just another public concert, and it was subjected to the same procedures as anything else.  I even recall the Discovery Channel people being told to prevent intrusive TV cameras distracting the audience.  Of course it was nerve-wracking for all concerned, but in the event we had a full house for the lunchtime recital on 14th August 2007 which went like a dream.

Watching the documentary again last night, I couldn't help but admire Leonard's playing.  He really did a fantastic job.  The funny thing is, any organist watching it would have assumed a lot of editing and retakes were involved and, perhaps, might even have suspected Leonard did not sound in the flesh quite as polished as he did on TV.  The problem is the usual thing of a TV director with no knowledge of the subject; the cutting and editing were all wrong.  As Leonard was seen to play one thing, we heard another, as his feet moved over the pedals, we heard only manuals, as his hands changed stops we heard no change of tone.  But that was a production error.  In truth everything we heard was Leonard live at his recital – there were no re-takes or editorial patches to the audio – and I can tell you it was a very impressive recital indeed.

It proved that, with people like Leonard Selva around, determined, focused and, above all, possessing absolute faith in the subject, the Malaysian organ scene can feel optimistic, even as the plug is pulled on recitals at DFP.

The DFP Klais in action
And what of the DFP Klais?  The organ is scheduled to be played in two MPO concerts next season and, if anyone has any sense, the two visiting organists – Olivier Latry and Jennifer Bate – will be persuaded to do something more than merely play in the concerts.  But without regular recitals, the interest so many Malaysians have shown in the organ will soon dissipate and without someone regularly playing the organ, it will quickly deteriorate as a working musical instrument; like an expensive motor car, an organ must get fairly regular exercise if it is not to seize up completely.  It would be nice to feel that the future of this iconic instrument is assured, but I'm afraid I don't possess the same level of faith as does my erstwhile pupil from Penang.


  1. What an interesting blog, Marc, and I'm very surprised - and more than a little saddend - that it hasn't attracted a significant number of comments. Perhaps, though, that in itself tells me all I need to know.

    The question that immediately springs to my mind is why has the DFP Management (if that indeed is the body responsible)'pulled the plug' from, what I have always understood to be, very well and enthusiastically supported organ recitals, concerts and events? I know that you've worked tirelessly over many years to promote the instrument and have devised imaginative and innovative concerts to raise its profile. Such concerts will have introduced the pipe organ to a whole new audience which otherwise would have rarely had the opportunity to hear live performances on such an instrument.

    The story of Leonard Selva is inspiring, and although I have never seen 'Pipe Dreams', I am now actively on the lookout for it.

    I can only hope that the authorities quickly come to their senses, acknowledge their error and decide again to feature their magnificent Klais in the months and years to come. You are absolutely correct when you say that any instrument needs to be played regularly; without that it will fall rapidly into disrepair and become nothing more than an impressive decorative feature - and that would be the biggest betrayal of the instrument that I can imagine.


  2. Interesting behind the scene article. Hope the Klais in Esplanade gets more exercises!

  3. Will we be seeing more of Leonard in Kuala Lumpur over the next months ? Will the white lady ghost that inhabits the organ loft bring renewed interest to the DFP and be the subject of yet another Discovery program ?
    Will we ever play Saint Saens Organ symphony again if the organ has to have a full service in order to do so ?
    Speaking personally, I can only add weight to the argument that anything that isn't serviced regularly will definitely fall into disrepair.
    Long live the Klais Organ and all those who are press-ganged to sail in her !

  4. I did not knw much about this grand old lady till i got to knw Leonard at sch and of course after seeing him play.Basically i would say tht he is one gifted person with magical touch tht grows so much under the simple touch his fingers.Apparently i hope to see him bloom like a flower in the future and may he go on with his dreams and succeed.Sincere wishes to him.You are an Artist in my eyes.