Courtesy of Dubrovnik Festival“If Beethoven was born in Indonesia, he’d be selling coconuts his whole life,” the 63-year-old maestro conductor, who works magic at some of the best opera houses and orchestras across the world, said with a sigh.
Indonesians have great musical talent, but too many of them are stifled in the underdeveloped music culture,” Noorman Widjaja said.
With musical talent in their blood, the Widjajas are the lucky ones. Born to Udin Widjaja – a talented musician from Medan who ran Sukarno’s favorite national choir, Maju Tak Gentar – Noorman grew up with exposure to all kinds of instruments.
He started playing piano at the age of five, and when he reached 11 he was able to conduct a concert on behalf of his sick father that amazed many, including Sukarno.
Greatly influenced by his father, Noorman believed in the natural feeling and fluidity of music. “Skills and technique are not enough for art. Many people know how to conduct an orchestra, but very few of them do it with enough expression and power on stage.”
He attributed his passionate and absorbing performances to his Indonesian heritage.
“Part of it is because of where I grew up – the hot weather and the spicy food that made us warm and cordial people,” he said, “part of it is because of my own character. As a kid, I’ve always loved the attention. I was the class monitor in high school. I liked standing up and talking in the midst of crowds.”
Watching Noorman conduct a musical or an opera can be intense. His conducting baton leads the music, his body moves with the rhythm, his eyes glisten with emotion and even his silver grey hair stands with solemnity.
He said he wanted to prove classical music didn’t always have to be elegant and peaceful, “It can be very wild and even barbaric sometimes.”
Talented as he is, Noorman’s humble start as a college student in Germany was not always smooth. In 1969, as the only Indonesian student in his class at the College of Music in Berlin, Noorman felt very out of place even among the Asian students who mostly hailed from Japan.
“Most Japanese students didn’t like talking to me. They probably thought that I came from some forest,” he joked, “but my crudeness soon helped me stand out.”
When Noorman was in college, students had the precious opportunity to practice conducting orchestras every year, but he was the only one who dared to stop the orchestra and correct some of the senior violinist’s or cellist’s mistakes.
As an inexperienced yet ambitious fresh graduate, Noorman applied to positions at the Nuremberg and Wiesbaden Opera Houses in Germany. After his very first tryouts, he thought there was no hope because he didn’t hear back from either of the opera houses after a couple months, but at last he was invited back.
“At first, I thought it was my Asian identity that they were hesitating about, but then after I was invited back to conduct for My Fair Lady, I knew they were testing how well I understood German,” said Noorman.
“There were no rehearsals or practices. I was asked to go on live immediately. They wanted to see if I could understand the script in German, and I did a great job.”
“I was so fearless. It’s like I had eaten tiger guts,” he said in retrospect.
Noorman’s career took off after he started working at the Nuremberg Opera House. His zealous performances took audiences’ breath away in countries all over the world, like Italy, Macedonia, Croatia, China and Japan. But, Noorman is planning to shift his career focus and devote himself to helping create a basis for Indonesia’s classical music culture.
“I’ve lived in Europe for too long, and now I just want to come back to where I grew up. I conducted more than 400 operas and countless musicals in the West. I want to devote all of my remaining time to my own country,” he said.
Last year, he brought the Dubrovnik Symphony Orchestra from Germany to Indonesia and held a grand classical concert called “Music from 7000 Miles” for his fellow Indonesians.
Five hundred tickets were given out for free so that everybody could afford the musical feast.
“Classical music is still new to Indonesian audiences,” said Noorman, “many of our audiences didn’t really understand the content of our music. Some wore sandals to our concerts, some applauded so passionately even before the music had come to a full stop, but it didn’t matter, what mattered was how much they loved the concert.”
Noorman said he’s always been impressed by the musical talent that Indonesia has.
“Some of the best voices I’ve ever heard were actually from poor vendors in Indonesia,” he said.
“It could be a vendor who just finished collecting used steel for the day and started singing with a broken guitar. Their untrained voices touch me so much. Sometimes being poor can unleash the most emotions in a person.”
As one of the biggest countries in Asia, Indonesia doesn’t have a national orchestra. “[The government] borrows people from here and there when a big occasion turns up, but a good orchestra needs at least six hours of practice together every day to improve.” Noorman said.
“The position classical music holds in a country’s public agenda shows its level [of culture]. Indonesia should have more classical concerts and more TV shows for classical music,” the maestro added.