Covid-19 Exclusives: Will the Pandemic Raise Awareness of Penang’s Need for a Proper Concert Hall?

THE PENANG PHILHARMONIC Orchestra (PPO) held its last publicised concert on March 1 before its plans for the year ahead was forced to be on a momentary interlude due to the MCO imposed on March 18. That was with soloist Foo Mei Yi.

The orchestra has had to adapt to the New Normal, holding meetings and conducting rehearsals through platforms like Zoom. Likewise, on its Facebook page, PPO has been profiling its individual musicians and showcasing recordings of short performances.

These musicians work on a voluntary basis, and come from diverse walks of life. “PPO offers a platform for young amateur musicians, giving them the invaluable chance to play in an actual orchestra. It's great to see their euphoria, when they get to play alongside big names like Stephen Hough, who is one of the world's 20 polymaths. They have the incredible opportunity to have concerts of such a magnitude on their CVs,” says Datin Seri Irene Yeap, the chairperson of Penang Philharmonic.

PPO makes classical music accessible by selling its tickets at affordable rates, rejecting the commonly held notion that it is an elitist art form. “Still, there are some people who hope for free tickets, not realising how much money goes into the organisation of concerts, from the renting of the halls to the hiring of guest musicians,” laments Yeap. While PPO does receive some government aid and some generous donations, she believes more can be done.

Penang Philharmonic plans its performances well in advance, producing a two-year seasonal calendar. They have had to postpone the rest of the year's performances due to Covid-19.

“One thing I wish the government would do is give higher tax exemptions for charitable donations. Singapore offers more than 200% but here, we give only 25%. Higher tax exemptions encourages more corporate bodies to donate. That’s one way the arts can flourish! The musicians are our software but what we lack is the hardware, e.g. places to perform that have good acoustics. Acoustics are very important for musicians, though many don’t realise this.”

Music, to Yeap, is another language, one that is meaningful and worthwhile, and that speaks volumes to the soul.

Aside from financial concerns, other limitations include long-held critical public perceptions towards classical music, and by extension, towards the arts in general. Yeap points out the irony that although the arts is viewed by many as frivolous, it – and other forms of creative media – was what sustained and uplifted many over the course of the MCO period.

Many arts bodies and events are going virtual. Is PPO planning on doing the same? “The idea has been mooted,” confirms Yeap. “In fact, our resident conductor has wanted to do a virtual concert, but I think we should wait till we can hold physical concerts again. Doing something virtually isn’t the same as doing it face-to-face. Even when computers or robots eventually take over, they will never be able to replicate the human touch, especially in the arts, because regardless of their technical brilliance, they do not possess souls."

The chairperson of Penang Philharmonic, Datin Seri Irene Yeap.

Yeap describes PPO – which, aside from its voluntary musicians, consists of a small team of paid staff members – as a well-oiled machine. It has gone from strength to strength over the last decade. But with such a milestone also comes worries about the lack of direction in the arts scene in Penang, especially with respect to music.

“We can’t just keep swimming aimlessly or running around in circles, performing with no end goal in mind. Where do we go from here? The state needs to have a concrete idea and a definite plan on how to position the arts for the future. It doesn’t matter if it’s in the form of a five-year plan or a 10-year plan, at least that’s something. We should be moving in tandem, in unison towards a goal."

A voluntary orchestra, Penang Philharmonic Orchestra offers a platform for amateur musicans from all walks of life to play on stage with big musical names.

Yeap emphasises that while virtual streams of arts performances are a nice alternative, no amount of technology can replicate the atmosphere of being in a concert auditorium. “Music is not so much about getting all the notes right, it’s more about the passion and love imbued in it and conveying that to the audience and connecting with them. This is what matters most.”

She draws the comparison of Italians during the initial lockdown period, of the camaraderie forged as they played music from their balconies, and how music soothed and lifted troubled spirits.

Music, to Yeap, is another language, one that is meaningful and worthwhile, and that speaks volumes to the soul. She hopes that Penang will try to do better. In her words, “Penang’s musicians deserve better.”

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