Asia Pacific Youth Choir 2023 held in Penang, Malaysia
Interview by Teréz Tóth
Teréz Tóth: Thank you all for joining the online panel discussion about the Asia Pacific Youth Choir 2023 project held in Penang, Malaysia. IFCM - International Federation for Choral Music We have some key participants with us today: Yoshihiro Egawa, Member of Board, International Federation of Choral Music (IFCM), Susanna Saw, Director of Young Choral Academy, Member of IFCM Asia Pacific Choral Council Working Committee, Chi Hoe Mak, Member of IFCM Asia Pacific Choral Council, Conductor of APYC 2023, Dr Tracy Wong, Assistant Professor of Choral Studies at Western University, and Conductor of APYC 2023. To start, Mr. Egawa, could you please provide some background on how the Asia Pacific Youth Choir (APYC) was established and its journey leading up to the 2023 project in Penang?
Yoshihiro Egawa: The APYC had its beginnings in 2011 in Macao, but its roots go back further. In 1986, the idea started, and it was formalized after annual regional meetings where choral instructions and ideas were exchanged among countries. In 2001, a regional choral symposium was held in Singapore, followed by world choral symposium in Kyoto in 2005. In 2007, the Asia Paciﬁc Cantata was held in Taiwan. Since then, we continued to hold regional meetings. The project faced challenges, such as postponing the 2020 session due to COVID-19. Nevertheless, during the pandemic, we managed to create virtual videos to keep the APYC spirit alive
Susanna Saw: Kuala Lumpur was originally set to host the 2020 APYC but faced multiple postponements. However, during the pandemic, we managed to recall some ex-APYC singers and together with the APYC2020 batch, produced two virtual videos. This was to help everyone to stay in contact, to uplift and encourage each other with all the wonderful singers during those challenging times.
Salutaris conducted by Chi Hoe Mak:
Composed and conducted by Dr Tracy Wong:
The Asia Pacific Youth Choir is the brainchild of the International Federation for Choral Music (IFCM) and we are grateful for the support from Emily KUO, President of IFCM, and also the founder of APYC, and Yoshi Egawa, Co-ordinator for APYC. We are grateful for their guidance and with their support all these years, the APYC can continue providing opportunities and nurture talents from the Asia-Pacific region.
We approached Penang’s Georgetown Festival for support, and they agreed to host 2023 APYC. Penang is also Chi Hoe and my hometown, and Chi Hoe has his adult choir there, which made local logistics easier.
Chi Hoe Mak: Being local, my choir members and I assisted with transportation and looking after the participants. We also decided to include a significant Malaysian program in the 2023 APYC. This was a unique opportunity to expose participants from other parts of the Asia Pacific to Malaysian music, which had not been done to this extent before.
The Asia Pacific Youth Choir 2023, Penang, Malaysia
Teréz Tóth: Can you tell us more about the selection process for both singers and the repertoire for APYC?
Yoshihiro Egawa: Auditions are open annually and are managed by the Asia Paciﬁc Choir Council. Singers from diﬀerent regions send in their applications and recordings along with their CVs. A committee then selects the singers, with ﬁve panels reviewing the auditions. As for the repertoire, each conductor has the freedom to select the pieces they want to perform, with the aim of creating coherent and artistically sound program.
Susanna Saw: There are no selection criteria for song selection. Each year, APYC takes place in a different country, and the host country is responsible for selecting their own conductors. These conductors then have the autonomy to choose songs they want to perform. The Asia Pacific Council Members collaborate with the host country in selecting the conductor for the event. Also, in the Asia Pacific Choir Council, the working committee of APYC we review the criteria for audition every year.
Chi Hoe Mak: It’s essential to balance the program with both Western and Asian pieces. This year, we aimed for a unique combination of both, including pieces from Europe and Canada. We mixed and matched these pieces to create an exciting and different sound for the audience. Tracy, who had participated in the first batch, is an alumna of APYC. She possesses a deep understanding of both the process and the cultural nuances involved. This is an important aspect, though it has evolved slightly over time. Singers hail from various countries, and we have less than a week to bring everything together since we only have a few days for rehearsals. Our initial step is to make sure everyone understands the importance of timeline and the timeframe. Following that, we discuss the musical program we intend to perform. This year we were keen on incorporating a Malaysian program, a unique opportunity to educate and expose choristers from various parts of the Asia-Pacific region to Malaysian music. Historically, there may have been one or two Malaysian pieces, but never to the extent we’ve aimed for. Tracy and I introduced our well-prepared Malaysian choral music arrangements into the program.
Dr Tracy Wong: Indeed, it has been twelve years, and revisiting this experience after such a long time has been truly special. Our focus is on the choral compositions and arrangements we’ve chosen, which are either inspired by or consist of folk songs from various Malaysian communities. These songs encompass not only the Malay but also the diaspora communities. When we sing Malaysian songs, our Indonesian friends might notice similarities and say, „this is Indonesian; only the lyrics differ”. This exchange of music among different countries is a result of the diaspora in the region. Additionally, we’ve included music from indigenous Borneo. One of our Bornean singers shared her experiences singing solo. Also, we had included the program the unique tonality of Eurasian Portuguese singing.
Listen to Jauh/Dekat (Far/Near) by Tracy Wong, cond. Tracy Wong, live recording, on 22 July 2023, at The Blue Mansion in Penang, Malaysia (Retrieved: IFCM - International Federation for Choral Music 01 October, 2023)
Dr Tracy Wong
Chi Hoe Mak: We aimed for a well-balanced program that featured a diverse array of music. We carefully curated our selection, including several pieces from Europe. Our repertoire ranged from the English Renaissance era with pieces from William Byrd, as well as a motet from Anton Bruckner. It also included three pieces from Canada, for which we obtained special permission to perform exclusively. This was significant as it marked the Asian premiere of these works.
Chi Hoe Mak
Dr Tracy Wong: I was honoured to have three of my compositions in the repertoire. These pieces were commissioned by Canadian choirs. They reflect the mix of the musical influences I’ve had, one foot in the Asian and one foot in the Western music training. I was always curious what it sounded in an Asian choir. So, I was really lucky to have APYC who have sung them beautifully. Without saying too many things you just pick up the music everyone understood. It was artistically fine with them having similar expectations. And everyone helped everyone else. That is how I make friends for life.
Listen to Bersatu Senada (Together With One Voice) by Tracy Wong, cond. Tracy Wong, live recording, on 22 July 2023, at The Blue Mansion in Penang, Malaysia (Retrieved: IFCM - International Federation for Choral Music 01 October, 2023)
Chi Hoe Mak: Additionally, we had a composition by Jacob Narverud, the American composer. Out of the total of six Western pieces, the remaining selection was dedicated to Malaysian compositions. This blend created a harmonious fusion of East and West in our program.
We put a lot of thought into selecting pieces that were not only new and exciting but also suited the singers’ vocal abilities. We ensured that the chosen pieces were a perfect match for their voices by assessing their performances through online recordings they had sent us with their applications.
Dr Tracy Wong: When it came to the Canadian repertoire, I was very conscious of the impact it would have on the singers’ learning process and how they could carry that experience forward. Firstly, we focused on Canadian composers who were not only currently active but also young, with a particular emphasis on female identifying composers working within the realm of contemporary music. Our selection encompassed standard Western choral SATB parts for one piece, while another piece predominantly featured graphic notation. This latter aspect was surprisingly new and challenging for most of the choir members.
In addition to these challenges, there were also speaking parts and percussion elements, adding complexity for the singers. This meant that our participants had to be more than just vocalists; they needed to be independent musicians who took ownership of their music. It was an enriching experience for everyone involved, especially considering that half of the participants were artists and choral conductors in their own communities. It was fascinating to observe how they could apply what they learned, particularly in terms of transferring leadership to the singers during rehearsals.
Moreover, the composers, who are close friends of mine, sent short videos to express their gratitude to the performers for bringing their music to life. This added another layer of connection for the singers, making the experience of premiering this music even more meaningful.
Chi Hoe and I are both serve as vocal teachers, working with students and singers in both community and academic settings. It’s challenging to separate our pedagogical philosophies from our artistic ones. While I can’t speak for Chi Hoe, I often find myself asking „What do I want my teachers to walk away with?”.
Those who have expressed the importance of setting the stage for the next generation hope that we will continue the work they have initiated at APYC. This responsibility has always been sitting on my shoulders. What message does a well-balanced program featuring diverse and high-quality music across various styles and genres convey about or Malaysian community?
Drawing from my personal experiences of singing in choirs where there is a mixed of seasoned and novice singers, I hope our program encourages participants to explore and embrace new musical territories. Additionally, by showcasing the work of talented composers, we aim to inspire a strong sense of connection and appreciation for the musical legacy we are part of.
Yoshihiro Egawa: The APYC was modelled after the World Youth Choir. Chi Hoe was a singer in the World Youth Choir, which I believe is one of the most wonderful youth choirs in the world. However, it is very competitive to join. That’s why I believe we should establish the Asian Pacific Youth Choir, especially for young people in the Asian Pacific region. Our mission is not only to sing together and create beautiful music but also to discover choral compositions from the Asian Pacific area. This allows both singers and conductors to gain a deeper understanding of our cultural differences.
Chi Hoe Mak: I’d like to add that APYC serves as a vital choral ambassador for our region. While it has always been a fantastic project, I think it is even more important now as the world takes notice of our choral talents and the richness of our choral culture in this region. We want to redirect the attention and focus to the national choral community, showcasing the fantastic choral music and singing emerging from this region. The singers themselves are ambassadors of this great music, coming from places like Malaysia and Indonesia, representing every corner of the Asia-Pacific region. It is a unique sound that deserves global recognition. When we talk about European choirs and American choirs, each continent has its own unique colour. It’s crucial for the world to appreciate the uniqueness and artistry of singers and choirs from our region. This is one of the reasons why APYC stand as a remarkably unique project.
Dr Tracy Wong: I think what Chi Hoe mentioned about being cultural ambassadors is one of the highlights of our week. During rehearsals, we have cultural exchanges among singers. Sometimes, even singers from the same country may not know each other well. But when they return home, they can share their experiences with their communities. We organize activities, like games that take just 10 minutes. For example, this year, one of our Japanese singers taught us how to make origami. We had so much fun, laughing, chatting, and doing origami together.
Teréz Tóth: How did you overcome the obvious obstacle of language differences among the participants? More specifically, do you benefit the language and cultural diversity of the APYC2023 members?
Chi Hoe Mak: All rehearsals are conducted in English. Some singers may not have been very confident with English, but everyone helped each other. It’s been a wonderfully supportive community. This year, APYC incorporated an outreach program for the first time. We visited public schools in Penang, delivering one-and-a-half hour sessions to educate students about the importance of giving back to society. Music has the power to transcend the concert hall and impact the community. Some children really enjoyed the program, and it showed how music can touch so many lives, even in schools. We taught the young singers how to teach music to children, inspiring them to continue this legacy. This outreach program was a significant addition to the APYC program.
Tracy Wong: While the conducting language is obviously English, the songs we sing may not predominantly be in English. We’ve found it easy to communicate with a group of Asian singers. We even share similarities in language structure and pronunciation.
Teréz Tóth: Finally, can you tell us more about the special location, Georgetown in Penang island and the venues for APYC2023?
Susanna Saw: Chi Hoe and I are both from Penang, and while we may not have the grandest concert halls, we can offer our hospitality, warmth, and the love of the Penang community. This aspect was particularly meaningful because the places and venues we used were all beautiful and historically significant. One of the venues, the Majestic Theatre Penang, was an old movie theatre that had been converted into an event space. While the other was one of Southeast Asia’s most well-preserved historical buildings from the 19th century, famously known as the Blue Mansion. The owner of the Blue Mansion thought it would be wonderful to have a group of singers performing in the courtyard. Surprisingly, it turned out to be the best concert hall – the sound was natural. The atmosphere was warm in terms of both temperature and the spirit. The Blue Mansion even served traditional Malaysian tea, which was prepared by the owner of the mansion, and the audience thoroughly enjoyed it.
The Blue Mansion, Penang
Chi Hoe Mak: It was the last concert, so everyone became very emotional. It was a truly human experience, witnessing the power and testament of music. A group of young people who had been strangers just a couple of days ago had become like family.