Mozartiana—PPO’s First Post-Pandemic Highlight

By Regina Hoo

September 2022 FEATURE
main image
"Performing in an orchestra is like learning how to play in a team sport," says Tan. Photo by: Penang Philharmonic Orchestra.

ELIAS DAVID MONCADO walks onstage the Penangpac as applause swells for the violin protégé. Moncado is the star soloist of the matinée, Mozartiana, Penang Philharmonic Orchestra’s (PPO) first organised concert post-Covid.

He greets the audience warmly, as one would a long-separated family member, before launching into a concerto under the conductorship of Tan Tor Song, a celebrated violinist now based in Germany.

It has been an interminably long two years since both musicians were last in Penang to see family and friends, let alone regale classical music enthusiasts with a “Tchaikovsky-remixed” orchestral suite.

The PPO too has weathered much of Covid’s calamitous storm; its import took a backseat to more pressing economic and health concerns. Before Wawasan Open University offered their space to PPO, the musicians were without a dedicated rehearsal space, says its chairperson Datin Seri Irene Yeap.

Elias David Moncado (Left) Tan Tor Song (Right). Photo by: Zuzanna Specjal.

“It did not help that after the pandemic, the Star Media Group had decided to charge us rental - one we can ill afford." The second-floor had been generously given to the PPO for a small token fee, and renovations had been undertaken to transform the derelict space into a home for the orchestra and outfitted with the best acoustics in town, necessary for routine practices.

Coupled with a high turnover of its member musicians, many of whom regard PPO as an excellent training ground before leaving to pursue opportunities elsewhere or merely as a platform to perform live, it is a wonder the amateur orchestra still thrives, pulling into its orbit internationally acclaimed musicians such as polymath Stephen Hough (see Penang Monthly, January 2020) and Malaysian Foo Mei Yi (see Penang Monthly, December 2020).

PPO’s determination to work around the musicians’ schedules to make such concerts happen, by any means possible, grounds its continued success. Organising Mozartiana was a mad scramble, Yeap recalls. “There was no possibility of hosting it at the Dewan Sri Pinang; it had been booked solid for the investiture ceremony. The search to find other suitable venues were met with a resounding ‘not available’.”

And so, frantic phone calls were made, mountains had to be climbed, and finally, E&O was persuaded to reopen the venue that once housed the Penangpac, at least for the performance day and at a fee. “PPO was also very fortunate to have hosted the choral performance, Rhapsody, at the same venue two weeks later. There is always a light at the end of the tunnel, no matter how bleak things seem to look at first.”

Mozartiana opens with an overture of Mozart’s last opera, La Clemenza di Tito, before easing into the movements, four in total. Tan is no stranger to conducting amateur orchestras; he works closely with children and youth orchestras in Germany as a didactic pedagogue, and knows instinctively how to mould the mass of tunes from individual instruments into a melodious assembly. “Breathing is intuitive, but often forgotten. If a musician plays without pausing, the music falls dull and flat.”

So, over the course of six rehearsals, Tan worked with the PPO the way an architect would a landscape; by assessing present social conditions in order to produce the desired outcomes. “Under the circumstances, it is not a perfect concert, but it is a successful one. Of course, we have a brilliant soloist, and that makes a big difference too.”

“You need a very sensitive player to evoke the colours that can be produced or that lie in the instrument; the musician needs to be the connection between the listener and the instrument,” says 21-year-old Moncado. Photo by: Penang Philharmonic Orchestra.

It is a fortuitous twist of fate for Tan to conduct Moncado just as how, more than 30 years before, Tan was a violinist when Moncado’s father, Bernhard Moncado was a conductor for the Penang Mozart Festival. “It is fortunate for Penang to see Elias Moncado in performance now, we might not be able to afford him later.”

Indeed, Moncado is well on his way to cresting fame in Europe’s classical music scene. Born into a musical family (his Penang-born mother is also a professional pianist and cellist, and a piano pedagogue), Moncado enrolled in a Suzuki kindergarten, where he learned tonal exercises and ear training.

“Personally, I think the violin is the most similar to a singing human voice. Especially in the two big cadenzas of the Beethoven Violin Concerto when the orchestra stops playing while the violin continues to sing.” Moncado is delightfully vulnerable to its effects, often using the pieces to exalt feelings and conjure up landscapes and sound palettes; and for the more abstract pieces from operatic movements and legends, Moncado takes creative liberties with their interpretations, but stays faithful to the composers’ original intent.

Moncado plays the Giambattista Rogeri, built in the 1700s and carries a hefty price tag of more than a few million Euros. “It is loaned to me by the Deutsche Stiftung Musikleben, a Hamburg-based foundation in promotion of musical excellence.” Moncado gained temporary possession of the violin after winning it in a country-wide competition.

“There is more to this violin than just a piece of carved wood. The climate, the wood and air, the passion of violin-makers then; everything about the time when this violin was crafted was exceptionally different. They imbue it with soul. You have to get along with it, to respect it. There are days when I can tell the violin needs its rest.” 

Under distinguished professors, Moncado learned to develop his unique sound, warm and well-balanced on the Giambattista Rogeri, “and with many different colours and coloured-tones, as well as the energy to project in big concert halls. The acoustics change sometimes during a concert, in part due to the audience and the design of the hall. What I love about this violin is how it immediately responds to any new influence or input.”

Like a Proustian layering of memories, Moncado’s encounter with a new musical piece urges an abyssal exploration of the psyche. “All your cerebral senses come alive and are busy with research and reflection on the music, and the kind of ideas and colours you’d like to produce on the violin.” Moncado starts with a mental practice, calling up the string of notes in his mind’s eye, and attaching to them layer upon layer of meaning, until satisfied.

The PPO ensemble; its youngest member is an 11-year-old student from SJK (C) Heng Ee. Photo by: Penang Philharmonic Orchestra.

“It is a very intense way of practising, but also more efficient. You’ve locked in the entire piece without ever having played it on the violin. Of course, you’d have to double-check on the instrument to fix minor corrections, etc.

“But the research does not end here. You might draw on your initial ideas during the first performance, but after a lapse of a few months, or even a few years sometimes, it’s fascinating to revisit the piece to see what has changed, what was missed, and to explore dimensions previously hidden from you.”

Mozartiana marks Moncado’s second concert appearance in Penang; he performed Max Bruch’s Violin Concerto No. 1, under the baton of Dato’ Woon Wen Kin, for the Penang Symphony Orchestra, PPO’s past iteration, when he was nine. “I feel honoured to represent my second home in such a touching way, and to contribute to the classical music scene in Penang. My thanks go to my great-aunt Judy Oh, to Datin Seri Irene Yeap, to Tor Song and the entire PPO ensemble and administration for making this homecoming truly memorable.”

Regina Hoo