Ensemble Virama is a newly-formed, eclectic ensemble of top-notch Malaysian musicians, set up by Howard Ng, the ensemble’s oboist. Besides Howard, the ensemble comprises of lecturers at UCSI University’s Institute of Music violinist Ooi Khai Ern, violist Angela Lou, pianist Yong Sue Yi, clarinetist Lawrence Fong, together with double bassist Eugenia Lou.
Held in UCSI University’s Institute of Music’s Recital Hall in September, Ensemble Virama started off with the first movement of Sergei Prokofiev’s Quintet Op. 39. The lecture-recital was based on the topic “Programming a Classical Concert”, with the objective of giving the audience an insight into the journey of organizing a classical concert from its conception to its birth.
After Ensemble Virama performed the Prokofiev Quintet, Howard explained to the audience that this piece of music was the catalyst for the ensemble’s formation, for he selected the piece first and then the musicians. Thus, musicians for the uncommon ensemble of a violin, an oboe, a viola, a clarinet and a double bass were found.
Howard also explained that the purpose of their concert series was simply to be a vehicle to create more performance opportunities or in other words, more work, for professional musicians in Malaysia.
He then told the audience the process behind choosing the programme for this concert. The oboe repertoire is not the largest – far smaller than the piano and even the violin and cello repertoire. Therefore, any work that features the oboe is like a gem, let alone one written by one of the greatest Russian composers of the 20th Century, Sergei Prokofiev. This is one reasons that Ensemble Virama chose to perform this piece.
Howard then gave a detailed history on the inception of the Prokofiev quintet and the context of what was happening around the world in 1923, which was the year that it was written in. This background was helpful in understanding the piece and the atmosphere that it created.
The next piece that Ensemble Virama played was the first movement from the Concerto for Oboe and Violin BWV1060 by Johann Sebastien Bach. Howard explained that when programming a concert, the costs need to be taken into account. Every musician has to be paid, and so to stay within budget, the musicians who play throughout the concert have to be the same people in order to be practical.
This is how Bach’s Concerto for Oboe and Violin came into play. Normally performed by solo oboe, violin and orchestra, Ensemble Virama performed the concerto with just an oboe, violin, viola, double bass and piano, with the piano playing the orchestral reduction. Howard explained that this set of musicians were logistically easier to organize, especially in terms of finding a space to rehearse in.
Perhaps the least-known composer on the programme was Guillaume Connesson, a living French composer. Interestingly, this piece was written for a sextet comprised of almost the exact same instruments as the Prokofiev quintet, save for the addition of a piano. The reason for this was that in 1998, a group of French musicians decided to play the very same quintet by Prokofiev for a New Year’s Eve concert. However, the one piece was not enough for a concert and the quintet had a difficult time finding a piece for the same set of musicians. Thus, they commissioned the young and up and coming Connesson to compose the Sextet for them to complement the Prokofiev.
2nd-year IMus student Chan Mei Xuan commented, “I found that the lecture recital was an interesting setting. This setting can engage the members of the audience who don’t have much of a musical background.”
The evening with Ensemble Virama was educational and enjoyable, where the audience enjoyed great music-making and enjoyed a rare glimpse behind the scenes of how programming a concert works.
This article was written by Andrea Sim, student of the Foundation in Music program.