CONDUCTING A CLASSICAL CAMPAIGN © Duncan Graham 2006
In 1996 Solomon Tong and a handful of friends made an important decision. They had deep pockets and a worthy ambition of long standing: To boost culture in East Java.
At last the economic times felt right. Appreciation of good music was growing. People seemed to be spending on recreation and the arts. It was time to move on and up, to form a Surabaya Symphony Orchestra (SSO) and create a fitting platform for the talent of Indonesia’s second major city.
Fast-forward ten years to the present - and take an interlude for introspection. The economic crisis has savaged all but the most resilient. Any spare cash is salted away should harsh times return. Now only Tong and one major donor remain. But the orchestra is still intact.
The SSO performed at Easter, has another scheduled for Independence Day in August. Undoubtedly there’ll be a big event at Christmas, complete with the 150-member choir. Plus three other concerts in cities outside Surabaya during the next few months.
It takes Rp 30 million (US $3,400) a month to retain the 56 musicians and a similar amount to stage a major performance. These are held in a central Surabaya hotel ballroom and are usually sell-out shows.
“But even with a full house of 1,000 paying guests we still lose money,” lamented Tong, the SSO’s conductor. “Fortunately most musicians can make around Rp 7 million (US $790) a month as teachers so they don’t have to rely on concerts for their incomes.
“The orchestra is heavily subsidised. I make my money from selling pianos and other instruments – I take nothing from the SSO.”
Tong is a member of a most extraordinary Chinese family that came to Indonesia in 1949 after the father died. His Chinese mother, who worked as a tailor, had been born in Yogya but moved to Xia Men after marriage. The union produced seven sons and one daughter.
All the boys are still alive. Five are preachers with Jakarta-based international evangelist Stephen the most famous. Apart from Solomon the other secular Tong is a businessman overseas.
Solomon Tong was 10 when his courageous mother brought her big brood back to her birthplace. But life in their chosen country was not going to be easy. As an alien young Tong was denied entry to university.
So his passion for music had to be confined to private classes. Among his teachers was the eccentric composer Slamet A Sjukur (see The Jakarta Post 31 March 2006).
Tong wasn’t just a fine instrumentalist; he was also a tenor and his ambition to join a school choir thrust him into a life of music that led to a teaching career.
How did you become a professional musician?
“I’m largely self taught. I spent five years in the US teaching music and singing in opera after I’d learned English with the help of Mexicans. I found them easier to understand and more helpful.”
What do Surabaya audiences want?
“The SSO has to be all things to all people. For example in the last concert we had works by Haydn, Mozart, Tchaikovsky – plus WS Gilbert and Stephen Schwartz. In previous programs we’ve included Phantom of the Opera.
“So you see we must be eclectic and give the audience what it wants. It’s no good if people go away dissatisfied.”
The audiences seem to be dominated by Chinese.
“That’s true. About 70 per cent are ethnic Chinese and it’s the same with the orchestra. It’s a cultural and economic issue. The Javanese tend to prefer dangdut and the gamelan. They learn the guitar.
“Studying music can be very expensive. A good piano may cost Rp 80 million (US $9,000) – a guitar around Rp 40,000 (US $4.50). The cheapest seat at a SSO concert costs Rp 100,000 (US $110).
“The young like music – but have no money. The old have the cash but don’t always want to spend on music.
“In Chinese culture the enjoyment of classical music is seen as a demonstration of good taste and high education. You’re considered to be a family of standing. You’ll have many admirers and get much respect.”
Can you fill the orchestra with players just from Surabaya?
“No. We have no problem with the strings, but there’s a difficulty with the wind instruments. So we have an arrangement with the conservatoire in Yogya that sends us players. That’s been in place since we started and it works well.
“We do have some outstanding local talent. I think local girl Pauline Poegoeh, 22, is the best soprano in Indonesia. She was the feature artist at our Summer Opera Night last year and was enormously popular.
“Valerie Christabel Gunawan is only 11 but another lovely soprano who has sung at our concerts before full houses.”
How long can you keep going?
“There’s a constant struggle for money. I’m pensioned from the Petra University where I used to teach and I have a music business.
“God has gifted me with excellent health. I was an athlete as a young man. I have a good biorhythm. If that remains I’d like to keep going till I’m 75 – which is in eight years time.
“I’ve already conducted 45 major performances. I love classical music but I’ve never been to its source in Europe. I want to travel but fear that if I go away for too long the SSO will collapse.”
(First published in The Jakarta Post 4 May 06)