Festive swing: performing arts veteran returns to stage for rare concert

  • Culture
  • Monday, 21 Nov 2022

‘I believe it’s the melodious nature of the music that keeps it eternal,’ says Peters. Photo: Samuel Ong/The Star

After a four-year hiatus, The Choir of The Philharmonic Society of Selangor, fondly known as The Phil, will be staging its much-loved year-end concert entitled Songs For The Season 2022 at the Damansara Performing Arts Centre (DPac) in Petaling Jaya, on Nov 26 and 27.

“Everyone is excited about putting on a memorable show, the kind of show that The Phil is known for. This is testament to the concerted spirit of building a community through music and the sense of community that The Phil represents,” said The Phil’s Brenda James, who has been at the helm of the choir since 2019.

Probably the oldest performing arts society in Malaysia, The Phil was incorporated in 1958 and will celebrate its 65th anniversary next year. The choir is the most active arm of the society and to date has staged more than 55 productions ranging from classical to contemporary. A stand-out feature about this choir is that it’s made up entirely of volunteers who come from all walks of life, aspiring towards building a community in harmony.

Songs For The Season 2022, conducted by performing arts stalwart Mervyn Peters, will showcase a selection of traditional and other contemporary seasonal songs such as Wolfgang’s Christmas Canon, Christmas On Broadway, Hallelujah, Do You Hear What I Hear and Little Drummer Boy/ Peace On Earth.

Peters, 76, first joined The Phil back in the mid-1970s, and he conducted most of the society’s choral concerts until 1990. Three decades on, he was back at the helm, conducting again.

“I was invited in mid-2018 to conduct The Phil’s Songs For The Season concert that year. I accepted the invitation and walked into a choir that was not used to my way of working! I think we were both surprised.

“However, most of the choir stuck it out with me and we delivered a concert which both the choir and the audience enjoyed, and that says a lot to me.”

He added: “We spent 2019 workshopping for a concert in 2020 which was put paid by Covid-19. So late last year, Brenda and the committee decided that they wanted to stage a Christmas concert this year, and so here I am.”

Man for all seasons

Peters has a long and rich history of being involved in local musical theatre, wearing many hats including producer, director, musical director, conductor, chorus master, stage manager, lighting designer, technical director and actor, and from as far back as 1962 when he was a member of a skiffle band at his college in Alor Setar, Kedah.

He moved to Kuala Lumpur in 1963, joined Pos Malaysia in 1964, and kept his interest in music by singing in the St Francis Xavier church choir in PJ, and was eventually made choirmaster from 1972 to 1976.

Peters (right) leading a rehearsal session with The Choir of The Philharmonic Society of Selangor, fondly known as The Phil. Photo: Samuel Ong/The StarPeters (right) leading a rehearsal session with The Choir of The Philharmonic Society of Selangor, fondly known as The Phil. Photo: Samuel Ong/The Star

The mid-1970s saw his interest in theatre develop with principal roles in Cinderella (1976); The Boyfriend (1977); and Hello, Dolly! (1982) with The Phil directed by the late Signe Syme, who became his mentor till she passed away in 1983.

“I have many good memories. Back in the day, there were many expatriate members in The Phil, and many who had good theatre and music backgrounds. They worked with me in my early productions, and I listened and watched and absorbed what I felt was good,” said Peters.

“I joined The Phil in 1976, and in the same year cut my teeth in musical theatre with a good mentor, the late Signe Syme, an Australian lady who used to run the Tinkerbell Kindergarten along Jalan Tun Razak (in KL). She was then The Phil’s director, musical director, choreographer and producer. Before she passed away in 1983 – a week after our 25th anniversary musical – she called me aside and told me I was ready to be involved in any department of theatre, except choreography!”

In 1986, returning from a four-month director’s course with the British Theatre Association at Regent’s College in London, Peters focused on technical aspects of theatre, mainly in lighting design and technical direction in a number of foreign concerts. He was resident conductor with the KL Symphony Orchestra (1986-1991), after which he began working on lighting for a number of The Actors Studio’s performances, and after retiring from Pos Malaysia in 1997, he joined The Actors Studio on a full-time basis as its general manager/technical director.

Peters was appointed Orchestra Personnel Manager with the Malaysian Philharmonic Orchestra (MPO) from June 1999 till December 2010. In 2006, he returned to theatre as chorusmaster in Broken Bridges and as musical director for Tunku: The Musical (2007) and Ismail-The Last Days (2008), which won him a Boh Cameronian Arts Award for Best Musical Direction.

With so much experience under his belt, it would be remiss if we didn’t ask the conductor how the job of conducting choirs and musicians has changed over the years, and he was happy to share his insights.

“It’s been interesting to see how choirs and musicians have evolved and changed through the decades, but one thing’s for sure – music is a constant,” he offered.

“Let’s take the 1970s for example – when I started conducting The Phil’s choirs in the late 1970s, it was a different era and most of the singers could read music because it was a requirement then. The music sung was also a lot more difficult, since in the early days The Phil staged a number of oratorios, and Gilbert and Sullivan productions. Carols were not necessarily the more popular ones; most were of English origin.”

‘Everyone is excited about putting on a memorable show … the kind of show that The Phil is known for,’ says James. Photo: Samuel Ong/The Star‘Everyone is excited about putting on a memorable show … the kind of show that The Phil is known for,’ says James. Photo: Samuel Ong/The Star

Peters explained that he had not conducted a choir since 1990 (with The Phil) until 2018 (also with The Phil) though in between those years he worked on choruses and principals in a different genre – musicals.

“Some of the current crop of members do not read music (this stopped becoming a firm requirement some years back) and this has been a major difference for me but then, the cast I worked with in musicals with other companies also did not need to read music to be cast.

“All they needed to have was a good learning ear, and the ability to retain and remember.”

Interestingly, he also points out that over the years, he has come to realise that as far as the female voice goes, there are fewer in the “accepted soprano range”.

“I find most are in the mezzo-soprano range, and I also hear most of the male voices are in the baritone range, very rarely in the tenor or bass range. It’s an interesting evolution and no doubt they are around – these high sopranos, tenors and low rumbling basses – but our paths do not cross very often!”

There’s a song in the air

As for the upcoming Songs Of The Season concert, what can audiences look forward to?

Peters says: “Christmas is always special to me for obvious reasons – I celebrate it religiously and otherwise. I believe it’s the melodious nature of the music that keeps it eternal. For me, it isn’t Christmas without Silent Night, and can you believe that that carol was written in 1818 and is 204 years old? I can play it in the middle of the year and it still feels ‘Christmassy’!”

Pop singer Elvira Arul is set to join the concert line-up. Photo: Filepic/The StarPop singer Elvira Arul is set to join the concert line-up. Photo: Filepic/The Star

As far as audiences go, Peters feels that they look forward to listening to the well-loved carols year in, year out.

“And I’m thinking of the standard carols, the seasonal favourites. But because of their inherent popularity, we have to offer the audience a fresh take via new arrangements or secular carols that are seldom heard on the radio or in church. That is always a challenge as it means scouring the Internet and finding suitable arrangements that the choir can manage.”

But scour he has, and the almost 45-strong choir is set to perform 11 songs for Songs For The Season 2022. To add to the merriment, special guest singer Elvira Arul will also perform a couple of numbers, and backing-up the choir will be a three-piece live band comprising of Elaine Toon, Kevin Theseira and Corgan Sow.

As a community-based choir, one of The Phil’s objectives is also to contribute to charitable organisations within the community. Over the past six decades, proceeds from productions have been donated to many charitable organisations around the nation.

This year, The Phil initiated its “Gift of Song” programme enabling the choir to invite musically inclined children and teens from various homes, caregivers, healthcare workers and community volunteers who work behind the scenes serving those in need.

“We are also grateful to our community at large who have given a ‘Gift of Song’ by purchasing tickets to the show and donating it back to us which has made it possible for The Phil to make this concert accessible to segments of our community who otherwise may not have had an opportunity to attend.

“Members of the public who wish to give a ‘Gift of Song’ can continue to do so by contacting us on our social media pages or by emailing us at selangor.phil@gmail.com,” said James.

Songs Of The Season 2022 will be held on Nov 26 (3pm and 8pm) and Nov 27 (3pm and 6pm) at Damansara Performing Arts Centre, Empire Damansara, Petaling Jaya, Selangor. More info here.

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