Orchestra in the modern era tends to take up a sort of veneer. Probably not elitism in the strictest sense, but the feeling that one has to know some kind of distant context to truly appreciate a movement, a piece, a cultural landscape. With Symphony for Our World, we are reminded that music – in any shape of form – is bigger than any human barriers, and sometimes more powerful when telling the story of our Mother Earth; all of nature and its inhabitants.
On the 6th and 7th of October, the Malaysian Philharmonic Orchestra, in collaboration with award-winning conductor Jessica Gethin and the Malaysian Institute of Art’s Mixed Voices Choir brought some of the best of National Geographic’s history into the orchestral hall. There isn’t much more ground to break within the confines of my limited imagination when it comes to multimedia performances in orchestra hall. Usually, the orchestra feel like crutches to footages, where the experience is barely distinguisable from listening to mastered versions of scores embedded in original film clips.
Symphony for Our World is lightyears away from that. The diverse composition and superlative assemblage by Bleeding Fingers Music means there exists two parallel vibrant lives standing WITH but yet independent from each. The National Geographic videos are elevated to ridiculously mountainous heights with the soaring orchestra, with both the orchestra and historical cinematic flair of National Geographic given equal limelight.
All of this even with interviews spliced in between movements and pieces. When Sylvia Earle talks on-screen about our connectivity with the Earth, the deafening silence of the instruments in the orchestra is itself a symphonic work. The pieces also add to the humanness of every creature we see – from small invertebrates to large mammals -to the already pithy depictions of camera work. One of my favourite nature photographers, Joel Sartore, shows this already through the photos he takes for the Photo Ark project, but Symphony for Our World makes it as if the animals are caught freestyling or in a candid pose. The amazing art of documenting creatures who won’t abide by script and must be handled with acute timing is elevated by heart-rending, suspense-filled, but also intermittently serene compositions.
On the other hand, the Symbiosis series in the first half of the show also includes a segment of human race, of which the symphony manages to capture not only the massive diversity of mankind but also that we are all creatures too. At times disgusting, polluting, unhealthily consumerist creatures but animals nonetheless. There is also a vision of hope, with the piece Balance, which shows humanity can coexist with the rest of nature – highlighting some of the great explorers that bring us the treasure trove we have access to today.
Jessica Gethin’s conducting was lithe and exuberant, and the choir gives everything a more gargantuan pacing and atmosphere that pierces through even the simplest of scenes like a frog jumping from leaf to leaf. After the show, watching a nature documentary has become an entirely different experience. Every sound design and score stand out. I find myself deliberating the purposefulness of orchestrating a certain motif to a terrain, or an animal species, or a biome. Truly life-changing.
As a boy who grew up with National Geographic magazines, educational TV channels, and animal encyclopaedias, I found refuge in the ordered chaos of the world all hanging by a delicate balance but yet too powerful for anyone to truly destroy. As I grew older, I realize that is no longer true. Just yesterday, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change released a harrowing report. There is something we can still do to make up for the wreckage we’ve caused on this Earth, and I find myself hoping that somewhere in that concert hall, a CEO of a polluting company or industry sees our world and repent. Symphony for Our World shows us what we stand to lose, and hits ones heart with guilt. It is hopeful but sobering.
An orchestra for everyone. A reminder that we share this world with other living beings. We own nothing. And having a multimedia orchestra piece tell you that is a wonderful slap in the face.
Check out Malaysian Philharmonic Orchestra’s website for more great shows.
Featured image source: MPO