The shape of the world a generation from now will be influenced far more by how we communicate the values of our society to others than by military or diplomatic superiority. William Fulbright, 1964

Wednesday, November 30, 2005



Petra Chorale – East Java’s internationally famous choir – has a new musical director.

Aprilia Wisminarni Takasenserang (pictured) will face her first major test as conductor of the prestigious choir at a gala Christmas concert in Surabaya on 2 December.

But the 29-year old mezzo-soprano is no stranger to public events in Indonesia and overseas.

Before taking on her new appointment she worked closely with the previous director, the charismatic Aris Sudibyo who has moved to Irian Jaya with his soprano wife Evelyn Kok.

Under his direction the choir won championships at festivals in Kupang and Bandung. It also performed in Jakarta, Hong Kong, Malaysia and Singapore, and in many Indonesian provinces.

In Surabaya the choir has developed a loyal and significant following for its lively and joyful presentations of sacred and secular music, particularly pop classics from composers like Andrew Lloyd Webber. The Phantom may have slunk into his backstage crypt at the opera in London and New York but his melodramatic passion trills on in Surabaya.

There are 25 members of Petra Chorale drawn from the staff and students of Petra University. There are two other choirs composed of junior and senior undergraduates, and Aprilia has to direct them all, from those aspiring to be Indonesia’s Sarah Brightman through to melody makers who’d be happy in a karaoke bar.

“Although our mission is to develop church music we also love to blend the traditional with the modern and interpret the music through dance,” Aprilia said.

“Our repertoire includes classical choral music, Renaissance madrigals, Afro-American spirituals, pop, contemporary and Indonesian folk music.”

The Petra choirs may have hijacked some classics but they’re not static stand-and-deliver performers. They have a reputation for providing lively entertainment with spectacular costumes and traditional instruments from across the archipelago. Their programs often included the frivolous along with the classical.

If you quiver at the thought of encountering a quaver, fear not. You don’t need a starched shirt to attend one of their concerts, just an open heart and a willingness to accept surprise.

Music aficionados in Surabaya still relive a snappy and original interpretation of the banal pop song ‘Don’t Worry, Be Happy’ at a French Consulate concert developed by voice coach Richard Awuy. This turned a chamber-music room into a music hall with diplomats dancing alongside divas.

Although the congregations of most churches are expected to sing every Sunday, the result is not always praiseworthy. The same goes for church choirs and invited vocal groups who often perform brackets of hymns jazzed up with a couple of guitars to attract a younger audience.

Protocol for these events usually requires visitors to leave expressions of pleasure locked in the vestry. Some charismatic churches allow applause. Others expect Pastor Grim to briefly shift from sin-spotting to nod his or her recognition of the performance on behalf of the silent parishioners. These worthies occasionally wonder whether the Deity could be better praised with singers staying in tune and sharing the same song sheet.

Under Aris’ tutelage Petra Chorale offered its service to churches across East Java who believed their choirs could lift voices along with hearts and minds. In the university’s formal language this reads: “To intensively support church services and to promote good choir ministry.” This policy will continue with Aprilia.

“I’ll also be concentrating on building the organisational structure and management,” she said. “We need to find more orchestral talent. Most student musicians have learned the piano, while we need strings and woodwinds. I’m out to spot new abilities.”

The choir doesn’t back an orchestra but uses individual musicians to set the mood. Members need to be multi talented, as the choirs’ repertoire requires them to sing in Indonesian, regional languages, English, Italian, French and occasionally Latin.

The singers are unpaid volunteers, but presentation and promotion are anything but amateur. Petra runs a Church Music Appreciation and Development Program but this can’t confer degrees. Many on the campus have long been urging the university authorities to create a full-blown music department.

Aris was an architecture graduate from Petra but had to study in Singapore to get his music credentials. Aprilia came from Semarang in Central Java, where her parents were both singers. She studied civil engineering at Petra, but her real interest was chords, not concrete.

She graduated in 2000 but since then has preferred to employ her soaring musical talents rather than build high rises.

In the absence of a music department, graduating in other professions seems to be the pattern. Aprilia’s colleague, tenor Adi Margono who leads the Petra Chorale, learned hotel management.

In her new position another skill will be in great demand from the young director; maintaining harmony on and off the stage among more than 100 artistic people married to their interpretation of music.

When Aris and his wife quit Petra earlier this year after eight years developing music at the university there were reports of many choristers being emotionally distressed at the split between campus and couple.

“We have to all work together, it’s like being in a family,” said Aprilia. “We are so close, it’s important to maintain that feeling. We have to be united and continue to produce fine new musicians.”

(First published in The Jakarta Post, Saturday 26 November 2005)




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