It was in 1992 that I first heard the Asian Youth Orchestra. It was their first visit to Malaysia and, if I recall correctly, they were performing in a hotel ballroom in Petaling Jaya (I’ve probably got that wrong; orchestral concerts in Malaysia before the construction of Dewan Filharmonik PETRONAS and the arrival of the Malaysian Philharmonic Orchestra had a nightmarish quality and I have largely tried to expunge the memory of them). I certainly cannot recall what they played or how they played, but I do recall a very lengthy conversation I had afterwards with a piano teacher from Malacca (sorry, Melaka) who had been in the audience. She had been very impressed and declared how she wished Malaysia might one day have a youth orchestra of such ability, but was convinced that it could never come about. I agreed. At the time I was working in a dismal music school in Kuching where hardworking teachers fought against grim conditions and desultory expectations and despite the occasional passionate outburst from our Vietnamese violin teacher – the only one of around 20 who did not teach the piano or drums – it was clear that all the school was aiming to achieve was a healthy corporate bank balance. From my examining and consultancy work around Malaysia, I knew this to be the norm but I also knew this teacher’s school in Malacca (sorry Melaka) stood out as a beacon of hope in a desert of musical apathy. If she saw no likelihood of Malaysian youth taking to orchestral music, then it seemed the case was cut and dried.
The seeds of hope had, none-the-less, been sown by the AYO, and it could have all changed in 1998 when the members of the Malaysian Philharmonic arrived in Kuala Lumpur with a wealth of global experience under their belts and a desire to pass that on to Malaysian youth. A crazy edict forbidding them from teaching killed off that golden opportunity then, but when, a few years into its existence, the rules began to bend and members were allowed to take on students hand-picked by management, it quickly became apparent that there was both potential and enthusiasm. Even then, when Matthias Bamert took the bull by the horns and declared that a youth orchestra was to be formed – and, moreover, one not made up of a few scrawny violins and cellos supported by hordes of electronic keyboards and drum kits – most of us, including both myself and the teacher from Malacca (sorry Melaka) remained deeply sceptical. Kevin Field proved all us sceptics wrong when he pulled together an amazing selection of Malaysian players and unveiled the outstanding Malaysian Philharmonic Youth Orchestra in 2007.I heard the Asian Youth Orchestra again in concert in the far more congenial environment of Kuala Lumpur’s Dewan Filharmonik PETRONAS in 2011 by which time the MPYO was at the height of its powers and, by comparison, the AYO seemed unexceptional. But the AYO in 2011 was, so far as I recall, a truly multi-national bunch and it was impressive that young players from so many widely different cultures could produce such results. Again, I recall a conversation with a music teacher who had been in the audience (this time one from Penang (sorry Pinang) – my Malacca (sorry Melaka) friend having died in tragic circumstances a few years earlier). She was adamant that the MPYO was much the finer of the two youth orchestras, and put this down to the fact that the players of the MPYO all came from the same country and were able to get together rather more often.
Move on two years and I find myself hearing the AYO in full flood again, this time in Hong Kong on the penultimate leg of their 2013 tour which has taken in Vietnam, Singapore, China and Taiwan; they just have Japan left to do next week. I was sorry to miss the first of their two Hong Kong concerts in which they were conducted by James Judd (it clashed with a performance of Dido and Aeneas across the harbour) but I was glad of the chance to hear them do a popular programme of Brahms, Haydn and Beethoven under their founding director, Richard Pontzious.The Hong Kong performance was the fifth outing of this particular programme within a fortnight, so it was clear from the body language of the players that they were wholly familiar with it to the point whereby they could relax and enjoy the fun of playing together. It was this which communicated itself most vividly; Pontzious’s penchant for heavily labouring important structural points, his eagerness to draw out detail usually deeply embedded within the texture and his desire to show off how softly the musicians could play, resulting in performances which contained lots of lovely-sounding moments but lacking any sense of fluency or coherent shape (and helping stretch the programme out to the best part of three hours). But this was a celebration of youth rather than a serious attempt to interpret standard classics, and to see so many young players really committed to the music long after they could have been forgiven for getting a little bored with it, was well worth the ticket price. The orchestra itself certainly enjoyed the experience, and long after the audience had given up applauding, there they all were thumping their feet and waving their bows demanding that they be allowed to give an encore or two, clearly not as concerned as we in the audience were that the time for the final ferry was long past, and the time for the final MTR was rapidly approaching.
This was an inspirational performance, and while musically it was by no means perfect – there was some loose ensemble, a couple of tentative entries and a persistent failure to achieve precise intonation on the long drawn-out chords which ended most of the pieces performed – it showed that, among the youth of Asia, there is an abundance of orchestral talent.But there was one thing which I found mildly disturbing. The AYO seems to have become an almost exclusively Chinese orchestra. Amongst the hordes of players from Mainland China, Taiwan and Hong Kong were the merest sprinkling of Indonesian, Singaporean and Malaysian players all, it seems, drawn from those countries’ Chinese communities, a tiny number of Thais, Philippines, Vietnamese and Japanese (not forgetting the sole Korean whose presence, when the nationalities of the players were revealed to the audience at the end of the concert, elicited ecstatic applause from the Korean gentleman seated beside me) and a single Eurasian. Not an Indian in sight, no evidence of any players from the Muslim communities of Asia and certainly none drawn from those European families settled here whose off-spring, born, brought up and educated in Asia, are too often regarded as alien. Surely the AYO has had a more diverse ethnic mix in previous years?
I know the members of the orchestra are recruited through open audition and that there is no agenda, hidden or otherwise, to ensure a Chinese majority. Perhaps Chinese players are, indeed, the finest in Asia. But wishing no disrespect on the excellent musicians who make up the AYO – the horn section, in particular, was outstanding, there was some truly sublime playing from the bassoons and clarinets, and the string tone, while a little hard-edged, wanted for nothing in incisiveness and ensemble – I don’t think this is the reason.My totally unfounded and speculative suggestion is that the Asian Youth Orchestra is the only really good outlet for young orchestral players from China and Hong Kong, while their contemporaries in other parts of Asia can now look to join their own national youth orchestras. Having been an inspirational force in Asian music for the past 23 years, it may be that the AYO has inspired the establishment of youth orchestras in countries which never would otherwise have had one. I hope this orchestra continues - its value goes beyond music to inter-cultural relationships – but if it finds the supply of really good young players beginning to dry up, it should give itself a pat on the back; the Asian Youth Orchestra might just be a victim of its own success.