The Sun, July 9, 2010

Birthday glee

Abiding Times by Tunku ‘Abidin Muhriz

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BIRTHDAYS in recent times have generally been low-key, especially with heavy bouts of engagement and wedding fever afflicting my friends. But this year was different.

On Tuesday I was in the Dewan Filharmonik Petronas for the pièce de résistance in a long process of revitalising the Negri Sembilan State Anthem. This piece of music has evolved over the century since it was composed and set to lyrics by Sir Andrew Caldecott and Tunku Zakaria Mambang respectively, adapting to the times to stay relevant to the people of this land of indigenous people and migrant communities from Pagar Ruyong, China, India and elsewhere who have, since 1773 at least, entrusted the protection of their freedoms in a constitutional, democratic and federal system headed by the Yang di-Pertuan Besar. 

After the proclamation of the Yam Tuan in December 2008, the anthem saw several performances: first, the not too successful attempt with a long-lost score for military band in February 2009 at the installation of the Tunku Besar Seri Menanti; second, my piano arrangements in April 2009 at the installation of the Tunku Ampuan Besar; and third, the fabulous orchestral arrangements by Datuk Johari Salleh in October 2009 at the installation of the Yang di-Pertuan Besar. That also formed the basis of a four-part harmony choral version.

In the following months I commissioned virtuoso Malaysian pianist-composer Chong Yew Boon to take into consideration all the previous reincarnations and come up with versions that could be considered final and official, while emphasising the fact that we value creativity and personal interpretation: indeed, a primary objective of this entire project is to encourage the rakyat to engage with this versatile melody, simultaneously accommodative to Schumannesque sweetness, Rachmaninovesque splendour and Elgaresque nostalgia. 

The day began with recordings of several solo piano variations (there will eventually be nine in total), followed by smaller choral renditions. Then, at 7pm history was made when the Malaysian Philharmonic Orchestra (and a Negri Sembilan violist from the Malaysian Philharmonic Youth Orchestra) under the baton of Kevin Field played through the full orchestra score for the first time.

I was in the audience, joined by dozens of anak Negri Sembilan in witnessing our anthem being played by the finest orchestra in the region in the finest concert hall in the region. We were beyond awestruck: we were spellbound. Our hearts pounded with pride, seemingly threatening to drown out the timpani. Some of us got goose bumps; many more of us felt the horns of our ancestors’ buffaloes gently brushing against our skin. 

Barely did we have time to take it all in as the choir were summoned to join the orchestra. This large assemblage of people included choristers from the Raja Melewar Teachers’ Training College, SMK Tunku Besar Burhanuddin Seri Menanti, Tunku Kurshiah College, SMK Tunku Ampuan Durah Seremban and SMJK Chung Hua Kuala Pilah. They were joined by seasoned performers from the Philharmonic Society of Selangor, Cantus Musicus and my friends in the SnL Singers.

My aunt Tunku Ivy and I joined them, and then we sang, as the vast banners of Darul Khusus flanked the Klais organ with its angklung-inspired pipes. Shimmering pillars of red, black and yellow met the percussion on one side and the brass on the other, thoroughly complementing the inspirational trumpet flourishes that greeted the final exclamation of “Berkatlah Yang di-Pertuan Besar!”. 

In the recording studio, Boon joined two Kuala Pilah natives in directing and producing the audio, so that the fruits of this labour can be shared across the nation.  Throughout the day too, a television crew captured every note, every cue and (unfortunately) every dud keystroke of mine on the Steinway (I shall edit those out).

All this was special enough for a birthday. But during one interlude, the orchestra and all the singers burst into Happy Birthday in the key of G major (Chung Hua already having sung it for me trilingually a capella), and so every time I enter the DFP from now on, I’ll have to remember it not only as a stunning concert hall, not only the scene of a new chapter of the state anthem, but also the venue of a most memorable birthday party.

Tunku ’Abidin Muhriz would like to thank Karina, Frank, Kertini, Arnan, Kevin, Azlan, Liza and all the engineers and musicians from the MPO, Boon, Auntie Ivy, Wen Li, Nian See, Ai Kee, the Bernama TV crew, all the singers, their teachers and the musicians who took part.