For one night only on Aug 14, award-winning pianist Mei Yi Foo will be performing solo. On any other given time, the Seremban-born Cardiff-based classical pianist would be playing in illustrious locations across Europe and at our very own Dewan Filharmonik Petronas with the Malaysian Philharmonic Orchestra, as she has on multiple occasions. But this concert will be held mid-week in a local university music hall in Cheras, Kuala Lumpur.
Arguably more intriguing — and compelling — is not where but what Foo will be performing: Nine original compositions by Malaysian composers written in the last five years, as part of Malaysia’s first contemporary composers’ piano festival, otherwise known as the Free Hand Festival.
Comprising a one-day workshop followed by the concert in the evening, the event is helmed by Adeline Wong, an established composer in her own right and a faculty member of the National University of Singapore’s Yong Siew Toh Conservatory of Music. She is also the president of the Malaysian Composers Collective, the organisation behind Free Hand.
“We’re a non-profit that aims to promote Malaysian content, specifically classical music. For this festival, it is about the piano — which is probably the most common and favoured Western instrument in Malaysia,” says Wong.
Promising an eye-opening experience even for those familiar with piano recitals, Wong and Foo will present compositions that, among others, explore the movement of water, depict a historical war in Melaka and portray an Indian string instrument. Then there is the showcase of extended techniques, including using a marimba mallet or guitar pick to pluck the strings — yes, at a piano concert.
“You will find a whole spectrum of colours at the concert,” says Foo, when asked about the pieces she will be performing.
As a vocal advocate of contemporary-classical music, she highlights the importance of performing new works. “First of all, I think it’s important and actually our responsibility [as classical musicians] to play works by living composers. We tend to forget that even classical composers themselves were once upon a time living composers — Beethoven, Mozart … I mean, without playing new works, we will not discover works that will be important in the future.”
The 2013 BBC Music Magazine’s Best Newcomer of the Year winner adds that any such opportunity should be treasured by performers, “to discover new pieces, new styles, and have a chance to develop audiences. I also enjoy discovering the creativity of composers, their processes, and to work collaboratively”.
Wong agrees, pointing out that besides the need for more platforms and the willingness to commission new works by Malaysian composers in the country, local performers also need to take up the challenge of performing these pieces on a regular basis.
An example would be Wong’s piano solo piece, Herringbone, which she wrote last year and which Foo premiered in Singapore. The audience at Free Hand will have a chance to hear to the piece, as it is one of the two showcase pieces of the night that will not be up for jury selection. It is the third piece of a five-work cycle, which the composer describes as a “most virtuosic” and rather fast-paced work. “The work is made up of a few notes, and the shapes of the notes go up and down in a V pattern — that’s how the title came about as well.”
Foo laughs, “Oh gosh, it’s not just simple Vs. It goes sideways, upside down, in many forms. It’s deceptively simple, except it quickly gets elaborate. It has become quite fun to play now, but gosh it took me some time.” Wong interjects, “That’s a good way to explain my work. It does get quite complicated. I use the minimum to achieve the maximum — that’s what I like to do in my pieces.”
When asked if she feels more at ease when performing new works, Foo answers earnestly, “I don’t know if it’s a surprise to a lot of people, but I don’t approach modern music any differently. I approach a Beethoven sonata the same way I would Adeline’s piece. One has to be faithful to the music, and dig deep to realise a work regardless.
“Also, I think these composers are quite serious composers. They write with a lot of passion, especially the younger ones — they want to express … they want to be able to put their thoughts on paper. So, I approach the works with all seriousness as well.”
Commenting on the Malaysian music scene lagging behind in terms of the commissioning and performing of new classical works, Wong says, “Anyone can commission new works” but the problem lies in perception, a lack of platform and support for these works, as well as audience exposure.
“This time, we have an opportunity not only to have these pieces played but also to perpetuate continuity. Among the composers whose works will be performed by Mei Yi at Free Hand, two will be selected by a jury. They will then be commissioned by UCSI University to write for its international piano festival event next year,” she explains.
On another note, Wong says Yayasan Sime Darby has also come on board to help with publishing an anthology of 15 Malaysian composers, which the Malaysian Composers Collective hopes will be given to local music schools and universities, and raise the profile of these composers internationally among the music fraternity.
Foo says, “I feel Malaysia is the best place for developing new music. In Europe, people have a lot of preconceptions, which is good in some ways but not so good in others. I realise that because classical music is relatively new in Malaysia compared with the Western world, we are more capable of listening without any prejudice.”
What of the perception that local talent is not as good? The pianist replies succinctly, “A lot of local people are succeeding overseas.”
The two ladies — who first met as fellow piano students in KL as children, and then again at the Royal College of Music in London when Wong was pursuing her post-graduate course in composition and Foo, an undergraduate degree — regularly return to Malaysia to share and impart their knowledge and experiences. Both agree that focusing on the younger generation is the best way to cultivate Malaysia’s classical music scene.
“I try to come back to do a little bit of something for the younger generation in Seremban, be it teaching or organising smaller concerts there,” says Foo. Meanwhile, Wong’s passion to drive the Malaysian Composers Collective forward is motivated by the Malaysian students she teaches and encounters in Singapore. “I gain from listening to them. It’s really valuable because they will be our performers and composers in the future.”
The Free Hand Festival concert will be held on Aug 14 (8pm) at UCSI Recital Hall Block G, Jalan Puncak Menara Gading, Taman Connaught, Kuala Lumpur. Entry by donation of RM50 (recommended). Buy tickets here.
This article first appeared on Aug 12, 2019 in The Edge Malaysia.