AMID trying times, the Penang Philharmonic Chorus (PPC) proudly celebrates its second anniversary with a quiet determination to sing on.
Established in April 2019, PPC is the youngest of the four groups under the Penang Philharmonic banner.
The Penang Philharmonic Orchestra or PPO was first to be created in 2008 as a rebranding of the official state orchestra.
Debuting in a choral music recital on a mid-December weekend in 2019, PPC kicked off its journey with KOM! that explored various genres and styles of choral music.
Excitement was high and membership expanding when the pandemic hit just a month before the chorus’ first birthday.
But with young, resilient spirits, PPC has marched on with virtual concerts, weekly online rehearsals, on-screen karaoke meet-ups and a touch of The Greatest Showman.
While many successful classical singers start voice training early in life, Mak Chi Hoe is not one of those people.
Learning the violin and piano as a child, Mak grew up in Tanjung Bungah, Penang, playing in orchestras and taking part in the annual music camps held at the end of the year.
Singing had been interwoven into his childhood but never took centre stage.
“I had always sung as a child; in my primary school choir, at church, singing around the house... that kind of thing.
“My parents were extremely supportive!” said the 43-year-old PPC artistic director and conductor.
Entering Penang Free School for his secondary education, Mak naturally got involved with school musical activities.
“One day, I was asked to take on the position as conductor of our school choir, so I decided to go for some singing lessons.
“Within a few years, I entered and did well at several national competitions and singing started to become my life – it opened up many wonderful possibilities, taught me so much about myself and it was such a joy to discover something new each day about myself and of others, ” he said.
In 1998, Mak successfully auditioned for the prestigious Asian Youth Choir and the following year, he was admitted into the World Youth Choir – the first Malaysian to be a member of both choirs.
With the latter, he sang and toured the world for six years.
“These two projects had a huge and profound impact on my life and I knew that I wanted to be a professional singer and choral conductor, and share this joy of singing with people.
“I went to the UK to train at the Birmingham Conservatoire (now the Royal Birmingham Conservatoire), graduated, stayed and freelanced in the UK and Europe for several years, and returned to Malaysia at the end of 2012, ” he said.
Mak settled in Kuala Lumpur and became the artistic director and conductor of the Young Choral Academy – the country’s first school dedicated to choral education and the training of choral singers.
Co-founding the Malaysian Choral Eisteddfod, an independent festival for young choir singers, Mak also became a principal artist and resident chorus master of the Kuala Lumpur City Opera alongside leading a handful of other award-winning choirs based around the capital.
Then, unexpectedly, an opportunity from home came knocking.
“One day, just out of the blue, I was invited to meet with Datin Seri Irene Yeap, the chairperson of the PPO organisation.
“She asked if I would be interested to help set up a chorus that would be open to everyone, regardless of age and ability – a community chorus, if you will, which would be completely accessible to the people of Penang.
“I had not lived or worked in Penang for 14 years, since I left for the UK and came back, though my dad still lives here and I make periodical visits home.
“This was quite an enticing project – one that would bring me ‘full circle’, ” Mak said.
Building a chorus
In March 2019, auditions opened for singers at The Star Pitt St building where PPO is housed.
Due to a strong response, a second round was quickly organised and PPC has held some half a dozen audition sessions to date.
Mak said the goal is simple – to create a safe, shared space where everyone and anyone can come and sing.
“With the voice, it is embedded within us and connected instantaneously with our innermost feelings, emotions and personality.
“Our body becomes the musical instrument, a vessel and the most perfect musical instrument that nature has provided. Best of all, it’s free!
“I have been working with community-based choirs for many years, both here in Malaysia and in the UK.
“There’s absolutely nothing like walking into a space filled with people coming from all walks of life, of different colours, faiths, backgrounds, professions, statuses and
putting them together and just watching them have so much joy from learning and sharing with one another.
“It is a beautiful and life-changing experience in itself, for me, ” he explained.
In under eight months, PPC held its debut entitled KOM! at the Penang Philharmonic Auditorium in December 2019.
Then, with the rest of the world, everything stopped.
Cases of Covid-19 were detected in Penang early the next year and in March, the nation went under the movement control order (MCO).
All live concerts were cancelled and PPO’s entire season, with some events planned years in advance, was postponed indefinitely. “We quickly moved all our weekly rehearsals online.
“But you know what, the pandemic has not stopped us – we have kept on going, ” Mak said.
Through the pandemic
To keep spirits high and ride on PPC’s momentum at the time, singers met online for practices and what they dubbed “virtual karaoke sessions”.
Members embarked on personal social media song challenges and PPC choristers began recording themselves singing solo or in groups to post on PPO’s social media pages.
Among them were sisters Lynne and Laura Chum who performed the jazz standard Lullaby of Birdland, PPC alto June Loo who launched into George and Giles Martin’s Beat of Your Heart in a home studio and a five-member team that sang A Million Dreams from musical drama The Greatest Showman together virtually.
Sensing that the pandemic would linger, groups under the Penang Philharmonic banner began more long-term planning.
The 2020/2021 Season was officially pushed back to 2022 and 2023 and preparations began for virtual concerts.
The first, entitled PPO Potpourri 2020 dropped on Oct 25 last year where PPC performed traditional Zambian and Canadian folk songs, with a bit of James Bond thrown in the mix.
In December, the PPO Christmas Extravaganza went online on Christmas day, bringing cheer and heralding home for the new year.
Dressed in red and black and holding candles, PPC began their set with Hodie Christus Natus Est, an improvisation of a 14th century Gregorian chant accompanied by only a set of Thai ching cymbals.
They went on to perform Christmas hymns sourced from different time periods and countries all over the world.
The chorus is planning a third virtual concert for next month but in the meantime, members are busy with the PPO Virtual Academy (PPVA) that launched in January.
Spanning six months, the programme aims at capitalising on the opportunities that virtual meet-ups offer in a series of workshops, webinars and master classes featuring noted conductors and performers from around the world.
January featured choirmaster Mark Anthony Carpio, who gave participants a peek behind the curtain of The Philippines Madrigal Singers, and bass trombonist Lance Low Wen Hong from the Oulu Symphony Orchestra of Finland who shared his practice regimen during the lockdown.
Last month, homegrown conductor Jebat Kee took centre stage while musical duo JoKymbo explored creating ways of learning and teaching music alongside pianist Jerison Harper Lee.
February also featured a session with Papagena, a female vocal ensemble from the United Kingdom, and Swedish barber quartet Ringmasters.
All sessions are conducted by world-class musicians and ensembles from all over the world – something that wouldn’t have been feasibly possible in normal circumstances.
The PPVA serves many purposes.
One is to bring its orchestral and choral ensembles together in the same virtual space where they can interact, share and learn from one another as well as inspire each other especially during these times.
“I think there is a huge gap between what orchestral instrumentalists and singers know about each other’s ‘world’ and by having these combined virtual sessions, it enables discussion, interaction and discourse.
“We also want to share and bring together the musical communities in Penang through the virtual academy and connect with them by opening up these sessions to everyone.
“I think it’s so important to support the scene especially during these times by
sharing and encouraging each other, so that together we can continue to stay inspired and motivated, ” Mak said.
For more information on the PPVA and PPC, visit www.penangphilharmonic.org.