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Symphonic it Rhythm....or is it Harmonized Jazzy Rhythm?

By Dato' Danny Goon

It is not often that we hear of a philharmonic orchestra playing jazz.

Conversely, few jazz musicians try their hand at classical music. Jazz musicians often take pieces of music to brand new places, with their own interpretations of the music. Meanwhile, orchestral musicians may not deviate from the music score placed in front of them. Hence, a jazz orchestra, typically called a Big Band, and consisting of saxophones, trombones, trumpets, and a rhythm section of piano, bass, guitar and drums, is not exactly a philharmonic orchestra. PPO once boasted a Big Band. Can its classically-trained musicians play jazz, with all its improvisations? Let's find out!

Pung Aik Khai is a Penang boy made good. Starting his music education at 5 years, Pung plays the violin, piano, Er-Hu, and viola da gamba, and sings, both as a trained opera singer, and as he puts it in an informal aside, also in a rock band. Actually, his first public performances were when he was fronting a rock band. Aik Khai has come a long way since. Having spent years in Beijing on a musical journey, he then moved to the New World to further discover himself, Pung earned his Doctor of Music in Orchestral Conducting in America, and went on to serve as an Associate Professor at the University of Cincinnati College-Conservatory of Music, where he performs prominent roles helming local Orchestras and Choirs. Truly a local boy excelling in a brave new world.

Aik Khai made his PPO debut in June 2019, conducting the PPO in a special performance of "Farewell My Concubine". That evening commenced with Schumann's Symphony No. 1 in Bb major, and concluded with Guan Xia's Farewell My Concubine with Beijing Soprano Huang Ping starring. It was a fine display of his bi-cultural expertise.

Fast forward 5 years, and Aik Khai is back with another string to his versatile bow. Under his baton, the PPO presented "Symphonic Jazz" at the Heah Joo Seang Hall, St Xavier's Institution on Sunday, 30 June 2024, to a full house.

Jazz and a Philharmonic Orchestra are not usual bedfellows. It was not until Anton Dvorak arrived in New York in 1892 to assume the position of Director of the New National Conservatory of Music, and his adoption of the melodies of Native America and African-America in orchestral music, that started the way. Dvorak led the movement and personified it with his Symphony No. 9 in E Minor, "From The New World'' which premiered in December 1893 in Carnegie Hall. 30 odd years later, that Afro-American initiative had changed the musical landscape, with the emergence of vibrant new forms of popular music leading to ragtime and jazz. The defining moment took place on 12 February 1924 at Aeolian Hall, with a concert entitled An Experiment in Modern Music. The orchestra led by Paul Whiteman presented 26 numbers, the penultimate being a premiere of an original piece hastily written in 5 weeks leading up to the concert. That was "Rhapsody in Blue'' with composer George Gershwin at the piano. And this happening is now regarded as the beginning of the Jazz Age.

And so it turns out, a century later, the PPO teams up with Maestro, Pung Aik Khai, to present a Jazz Symphonic concert. It was a playlist to tempt the aficionados.

It commenced with a Salute to the Big Bands, featuring hits like April in Paris, Serenade in Blue, Sing, Sing, Sing and I'm getting Sentimental Over You. It was followed by 2 sets dedicated to Charlie Parker, and with 6 Duke Ellington hits including It Doesn't Mean a Thing if it Ain't Got That Swing and Dixieland Street, sandwiched in between.

Charlie Parker needs no introduction if you are a genuine jazz fan. Paying tribute to his vast musical legacy was soloist Henderson Ooi, on Alto Saxophone. Henderson has a day job as financial director to a corporation. But you would not believe it, hearing his mellow soothing tones, ably supported by Ong Ket Wei on double Bass, Zale on Keyboard and Khoo Kai Wei on drums, with the PPO putting the Symphonic to the Jazz. You can envision "Bird" Parker looking on from above, approvingly, as the Hall reverberated with his signature hits. There were Autumn in New York, Summertime, What is this Thing Called Love, April in Paris, East of the Sun, Easy to Love, just to name a few. Henderson Ooi well deserved the tremendous ovation at the end of his stint.

Finally, to Gershwin, by George, delightfully dished out by the PPO under Aik Khai's enthusiastic leadership. Whose feet wouldn't go tap, tap, tap to the infectious rhythm of Strike up The Band, I Got Rhythm, Embraceable You, Summertime, and that old classic that started it all a century ago, Rhapsody in Blue? Not all symphonic jazz experiments are successful. But as we are seeing around the globe, there is enormous potential to be realised by broadening the emotional and expressive message of jazz, through an orchestra framing jazzy improvisations.

And did PPO succeed? With the grateful audience wanting more, the by now swinging jazz orchestra, improvising as good as any, did Rhapsody in Blue again to foot-stomping applause. What a thumping end to a delightful afternoon of jazzy rhythm......or is it harmonized jazzy rhythm? "

Dato' Danny Goon

Board Member, PPO.

11 July, 2024.

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