A reorganisation of the CD shelves has just been completed. Probably a pointless exercise since it's looking increasingly unlikely that I'll be able to stay in Singapore after the end of the year – there just isn't enough work here for a man of my limited talents – but a necessary one since the collection has now exceeded the 13,000 mark. Having all those CDs lying around on the floor and being checked off against the catalogue drew my attention to some forgotten members of the Rochester Collection, not least those at the very top left hand and very bottom right hand corners in a collection arranged numerically and alphabetically. Interestingly, those discs at the extremities came with stories closely connected to my time with the Petronas Philharmonic Hall in Kuala Lumpur.
In June 1999, James Judd (and one could write a substantial chapter on the sorry saga of his involvement with the MPO, but that's probably best left to submerge beneath the waves of time) conducted a performance of The Planets. The problems the Americans had in getting their space programme underway were nothing to what we went through to get a ladies' choir together for the final movement. It all but fell apart and, in the concert post-mortem, it was decided that we should get a pool of singers trained and ready for occasional performances when a chorus was needed. This, of course, ran against an objection many Muslims have to singing on stage, and a very delicate line had to be struck – after all the hall was specifically designed not to accommodate a choir. However I assembled a group of some 50 voices and, over the course of the next two years, got them to a fairly acceptable standard. We decided to launch ourselves with a choral concert on 8th April 2002. It couldn't be a true choral concert as this would have caused some issues with the authorities, who did not want to annoy the more fundamentalist Islamic leaders from the east coast states (from which the vast bulk of Petronas oil was extracted), so we did it as a kind of piggy-back on one of my early evening organ recitals.
|The one public appearance of the MPO Chorus|
Less than a month before the concert, I was told to submit a list of choir members. "Too many foreigners", I was told, "Bring in more Malaysians". How, after two years' training, I could sudden conjure up a group of locals and get them to sing well defies the imagination; but it is typical of the astonishing musical ignorance which has always plagued DFP management. When I said that wasn't possible, I was told to axe the foreigners. That would have left me with a choir of 20 and I refused. A fortnight before the concert, I was told that only foreigners with Permanent Resident status or with valid work permits could be allowed to perform on stage, others would need to revoke their current Malaysian visas, apply for a permit allowing them to perform at a public concert, and then reapply after the event to revert to their original status, which was by no means guaranteed. When it became obvious that, during the process of applying and re-applying, they would need to leave the country, the concert looked doomed.
The wife of the then German Ambassador to Malaysia, one of my sopranos (holding a diplomatic passport and therefore no work permit), was outspoken in her condemnation of all this and expressed her resentment to her husband. In an act of astonishing ineptitude, he, without checking any facts with anyone at DFP, wrote a letter to the national press accusing Malaysia of racism, which caused a considerable stir in the DFP office. Not long afterwards, the German Ambassador was recalled (coincidence?), but, through patient argument (not my strong point), and a concession that the choir would not be called, as originally intended, the MPO Chorale, we were able to let the concert go ahead with most of the original choir, but on condition that it would be disbanded immediately afterwards and never perform on the DFP stage again.
As all this saga unfolded Judith remained a tower (more a mountain – she, like me, was not the most svelte person in the world) of strength and dependability, always optimistic and seeing a solution to every problem. In gratitude, after the concert, she gave me two CDs by Craig Sheppard. She had heard him perform some years earlier and been so moved she had bought all his CDs. By giving two of them to me, she was sharing something very special, and I was deeply moved by her sacrifice. It would be nice to report that I, too, found the CDs deeply moving, but at the time I was not bowled over by them and, sadly, have left them to fester on the top shelf. Until now. Prompted not only by the memory of Judith's loyalty and immense kindness, but by the fact that Craig Sheppard was in Singapore a couple of weeks ago giving a masterclass to Yong Siew Toh students, I have taken the trouble to revisit this pair of CDs.