The rear desk

“We had a house of squawkers and scrapers,” recalled Ruth Chia, daughter of Paul Abisheganaden who passed away recently (Straits Times, 2 September 2011, Death of a maestro).

I was one of them. I must have squawked and scraped more than most.

I was probably no more than 13 or 14 when I first set foot in his house, introduced by my music teacher to play the cello in the amateur orchestra that Abisheganaden led. I think they were short of cellists, so even students were drafted to help out. On the other hand, learning to play in an orchestra is part and parcel of learning music; you get to learn about co-ordination within a group, tone and volume control (when to pull back, when to push forward to take the melodic line), phrasing and dynamics, and a hundred other things that you can never quite learn playing solo. In a sense, the drafting was an integral part of learning music. Playing under conductors with different tastes from your own teacher also opens a young musician’s ears to different interpretational styles.

Nearly all the rest were adults, more men than women. Some were music teachers, others just amateur violinists, flautists, trombonists and bassists; all coming together perhaps one or two Sundays a month to make music. Time was devoted just to the pleasure of playing something nice, but just as often, we’d have to work seriously at rehearsing for an upcoming concert. Above all, it was a circle of friends, sharing a common love — music.

In memory of Paul Abisheganaden, here’s one of my favourite pieces of chamber music for strings — Edvard Grieg’s Holberg Suite. The Prelude:

I remember Paul Abisheganaden as a wonderfully patient conductor. Every time he spoke, it was with clarity and leavened with humour. How he managed to cope with a mixed bag of members ranging from professional music teachers to struggling students will always remain a mystery to me. Where he found the money to buy scores and music sheets I never quite understood, not to mention too the snacks and refreshments that his wife Terri always laid out for the 20 – 40 people that showed up. But then I was perhaps too young to even enquire about such things as where money would come from, still at an age when the whole concept went no further than stretching out my hands to my parents asking for more pocket-money.

To the best of my memory, I was the youngest member of the orchestra, at least at the beginning. There were two or three others in their mid-teens, playing the violin, as I recalled. The next youngest person playing the cello was about 17 or 18 — let’s call him Bae — and the two of us, being the junior-most players in the section, were often relegated to the rear desk. Not much more was expected of us than to merely get the notes right and play in time. That said, Bae was far better than me. And I, as the more junior of the two, was the page-turner too.

I had a huge crush on Bae.

He was a head taller than me, with broad shoulders and classically-sculpted features for his face. But he was the quiet type, communicating more with his eyes than with speech. To make up for that, I tended to talk too much, often with nothing worth saying, but it was essential nonetheless to keep the words flowing in order to hold his attention. I’m sure there were times when he had no idea what I was going on about; perhaps he saw me as afflicted with glossolalia. I couldn’t stop myself even when I could see myself; I absolutely had to have his eyes affixed on me every chance I had.

At 13 and 14, we begin to have self-awareness. I knew I was behaving love-struck, and I knew he was just indulging me like he would indulge a younger brother. But the fact that he did, with calm patience, a pretence of listening and the occasional nod, smile and reply, only made me appreciate him more.

The score-sheets were full of his pencil-markings as he dutifully notated the instructions that Abisheganaden set out. Each time Bae reached out to pick up the pencil and scribble something onto the sheet, I would watch the hand, this being a legitimate opportunity to stare at a physical part of him. Each time, while playing, when we came to the bottom of the sheet, I would turn to look at his face, watching for the slight nod that was the signal for turning the page. Again, a legitimate opportunity to look hard at him, trying one more time to etch into memory his features.

Once he caught me looking longer at him than truly needed to turn the page. Flicking his eyes away from the page to me, he smiled — perhaps a knowing one — which left me both ecstatic and embarrassed. He laughed. I laughed and we both lost concentration, stumbled and made a mess of the notes. Abisheganaden noticed and looked in our direction, but thankfully, carried on conducting. If he had stopped the whole orchestra over us, I think I would have melted into the floor.

We didn’t just go to Abisheganaden’s house to rehearse and then leave. We — well, at least the adults — would be there to socialise too. Some would arrive early, or others would stay on late, to talk and enjoy their friendship. There was one occasion when Bae and I stayed on after rehearsals, and Abisheganaden mentioned something about a new stereophonic speaker set he had acquired but couldn’t get it to work, which was a pity because he had some new records to play. Bae asked if he could be allowed to take a look at it — he was studying electrical engineering — and Abisheganaden said: Oh please see what you can do.

Bae called me over to help him move the speakers and amplifiers out so that he could get behind them, and for the next few minutes I watched with increasing admiration as he pulled the wires out from here and inserted them into there, tightened a screw here and twiddled that knob there, at the end of which, it worked. From the stereo set rose a thunderous wave of Wagner. From my beating heart surged boundless adoration. Bae my hero.

The orchestra gave a number of concerts; they became so routine, I don’t even remember any of them with detail. But there remained one which would forever be special. Unlike most of the rest, performed in public halls, this one was a private concert. A small string ensemble was requested by an ambassador of a Western country to perform at his house for a Christmas party. Somehow Bae and I were included though not all members of the orchestra were needed. Certainly, I was the youngest member there.

It was an unimaginable thrill for a teenaged boy to be invited to an ambassador’s house to shake hands with important people, to have members of the diplomatic corps say complimentary things to you, even when you were deathly conscious of the pimple that unceremoniously showed up that same morning. Naturally, through most of the evening, I was pretty much out of the conversational loop. I didn’t mind; I wouldn’t have known how to participate anyway and it was interesting enough just watching people. Anyway, there were things to do. I helped arrange the chairs and put up the score sheets. We played. We stood up and bowed subtly to applause. We helped pushed the chairs away and packed our instruments, making sure they didn’t get in anyone’s way. Then I could sample the buffet laid out on the patio next to the swimming pool — Wow! the house had a swimming pool — tucking into the smoked salmon, the roast beef and the many kinds of cheese, with every reason to keep a conversation going with Bae, asking him what this or that delicacy was, and which sauce went with what. . .

A waiter went around with a trayful of champagne. He sailed right past me, serving the adults instead. Bae, however, was tall enough to pass for one, and the waiter stopped in front of him. Somehow, Bae knew to take a quick glance in my direction and decided to pick up two glasses. He came over to give me one, and that’s when I had my first taste of champagne. I can’t say I liked it, and I’m not sure that Bae did either.

But that’s not important.

What was important was that thanks to Paul Abisheganaden, I had the opportunity for these experiences: to learn to play in an orchestra, to be motivated to practise, to perform on stage and rise to applause, to be invited into different social circles and glimpse new horizons. To feel wanted and grown-up. To take flight on a wing of song and teenage crush.

Thank you, Mr Abisheganaden. Rest you well.

6 Responses to “The rear desk”

  1. 1 chrishansenhome 3 September 2011 at 17:49

    What a touching tribute. Thanks for posting!

  2. 2 flyriverboy 4 September 2011 at 01:12

    this is so tangible to so many of us…but you have a way with words.

    thank you Alex.

    RIP Mr Abisheganaden.
    ( BTW, is he the father of singer, Jacintha Abisheganaden?)

  3. 3 ricardo 4 September 2011 at 04:23

    I believe Jacintha was Alex’s daughter so Paul was her uncle. Alex was the guitarist (among other things).

  4. 4 tocqueville 4 September 2011 at 08:32

    I remember Paul Abisheganaden as the Principal of Victoria School, then in Jalan Besar, where I studied. I never got in trouble in school so I never came face to face with him.

    We students called him ”A Bush in the Garden’.

  5. 5 walkie talkie 4 September 2011 at 13:02

    Another time write a piece about you and Bae please… sounds like a sweet story… even if it is sweet & sour plus bitter, I think many readers here will still like to read about it 🙂

  6. 6 oute 5 September 2011 at 10:50

    How is it that such a talented person did not come up and stand for election. Singapore would be a different place if the real talent singaporean comes up and stand up to be seen, instead of those 2nd / 3rd tier candidates that we are having now.

    For those who are talented in music, dancing etc in the arts, do stand up and make Singapore a beautiful place to stay, learn and contribute.

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