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Hitting the Right Notes

 

FOR a country of 240 million people, Indonesia’s Western music scene is surprisingly low key. There are only two well-established symphony orchestras, well-designed auditoriums are rare, and few Western-trained musicians can find enough work to make a decent living.

Contrast this with five-million-strong Singapore, where music festivals showcase the nation’s talent throughout the year and quality auditoriums are plentiful.

Why the difference? Why, indeed. Indonesians in general may be poor, but the country has a rapidly growing middle class, and the nation is hardly devoid of talent.

Indonesia has a handful of university-supported student ensembles, but they lack good management and artistic directors. There are only two professional groupings. They are the Nusantara Symphony Orchestra, financed regularly by Medco (an oil company) together with several banks; and Twilite, a project- based orchestra that specialises in the performance of soundtracks from films – it draws much of its income from the sale of tickets, and sometimes performs on local television.

Somewhat surprisingly, the country’s best auditorium was not designed for public use at all. Located at the Bank Indonesia complex in Central Jakarta, it can only be used by special permission.

In general, the public have to be content with less impressive auditoriums built by foreign embassies. Inevitably, all are located in Jakarta.

Recent years have seen the establishment of several music schools where Indonesians can study music at an advanced level. Apart from Yogyakarta’s well-established, government-funded Institut Seni Indonesia (ISI), there is the Jakarta Conservatory of Music and Institut Musik Indonesia. Both are located in Jakarta.

Some secondary schools also maintain marching bands that have the potential to provide such institutions with students.

Sadly, however, the range of musical instruments taught in Indonesia’s music academies is quite narrow, focusing almost entirely on piano, strings and voice. Apart from ISI, almost none provides advanced instruction in brass, for example.

The London-based Associated Board of the Royal Schools of Music (ABRSM) operated in Indonesia for more than 30 years before its examiners had the opportunity to assess brass candidates. The musical drought was broken in 2009, when 25 members of Medan's Brass Band Jenderal (BBJ) a Salvation Army brass band, entered the examinations as five quintets.

Little wonder that local orchestras often end up borrowing Thai and Singaporean brass players.

Even sadder, perhaps, is the way Indonesians tend to underestimate the ability of their own citizens. The local organisers of this year’s Steinway Competition for piano, for example, included a rule expressly prohibiting contestants from playing the works of local composers.

Such an attitude, it seems, is widespread. Several years ago, well-known pianist Ananda Sukarlan wrote several piano examination pieces at the invitation of the ABRSM. No Indonesian candidate chose to perform them, although several foreigners did.

All this suggests that Indonesia’s main problem is psychological. With a more sensible approach to music education, better planning and more self-confidence, there seems no reason why Indonesia could not be among the Western music powerhouses of Asia.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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