LEONARD Selva Gurunathan, 46, teaches English and History at Southeast Asia’s oldest English-medium school, the Penang Free School in George Town.
When he is out of the classroom, “Sir Leonard”, as his students call him, is also a musician and one of Malaysia’s few pipe organists.
Today, Gurunathan is the resident organist at the Church of the Assumption at Lebuh Farquhar on the island, where a 103-year-old pipe organ affectionately called the “Old Lady” is located.
It was Gurunathan’s passion for the pipe organ that led to the restoration of the historical instrument at the church.
After being featured in a documentary on Malaysian pipe organs by Discovery Channel called Pipe Dreams, he was contacted by the then tourism minister, Datuk Seri Dr Ng Yen Yen.
“She watched a rerun of the show while on an overseas trip,” he said in an interview.
“She was very excited and wanted to know more about the documentary and what I was doing,” he said, adding that the conversation led to the need to restore Old Lady.
“I told her that we needed RM300,000 for Old Lady to be restored and she said she would look for corporate sponsorship.”
Dr Ng kept her word and in no time, the restoration of Old Lady was made possible when AirAsia Expedia donated RM200,000 and Star Foundation gave RM50,000.
Khazanah Nasional Bhd’s Think City Sdn Bhd also donated RM262,000.
The 640-pipe organ, touted as the only functioning pipe organ in a Malaysian Catholic church, was built in England in 1914 by Morton and Moody of Oakham, England, and erected inside the church two years later by Robinson Piano Co Ltd.
“The Assumption pipe organ restoration received publicity and this was truly an awesome moment for me as I had always wished to see the organ scene in Malaysia revived,” Gurunathan said.
The Catholic church is located within George Town’s United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation heritage core zone. Its neighbour is Southeast Asia’s oldest Anglican church, St George’s Church, which is home to a new Mander pipe organ.
In 2017, when St George’s Church installed the new Mander pipe organ, Gurunathan couldn’t be more excited.
“This was an obvious revival, but a pressing issue on my mind was for the next generation of organists to be nurtured and developed,” he said.
“St George’s Church approached me to train their young organists. Today there are four dedicated, young people who have come forward. I am happy that the seeds for the next generation of pipe organists have been sown.”
Gurunathan is pursuing a doctorate degree in the best practices of organs restored in Malaysia Singapore and India, and hopes to put the pipe organ in the Malaysian music education syllabus for secondary schools.
“From when I was a child, my father spoke often about the organ and how much he loved it. He had the option of sending me to learn another keyboard instrument, but he preferred the organ. In a way, his choice became my choice instrument,” said the father of two, who is also a photography buff.
“The organ was not an instrument I feared because as a child, I was exposed to its music in church weekly.”
When he turned 11, Gurunathan and his younger sister, Christina, were packed off for music lessons. Their parents were active choir members at St Francis Xavier’s Church at Penang Road and felt strongly that their children should study music.
“I had one of the most interesting teachers, Jeffrey Wong, who nurtured my love for music. He showed me that music was fun and not just about reading the notes.
“I looked forward to his classes, especially the part where he would play a piece you are about to learn,” said Gurunathan, who holds a Master’s degree in Music.
He said Wong would play the piece twice, first as how it was written on the score.
“Then he would repeat the piece with his improvised version. This was how I could see how much he enjoyed playing. He would ask me to do the same. Thanks to this method of teaching, I learnt to improvise at a very early age.
“Later in life, this aspect proved invaluable and helped me enter the jazz music scene.”
His early days as a church organist were at his home parish, the Church of the Immaculate Conception on Penang island.
From there, Gurunathan went on a self-learning journey of playing the pipe organ at the Church of the Assumption.
In 2007, he had an organ recital at Dewan Filharmonik Petronas at KLCC in Kuala Lumpur, perhaps the only Malaysian to have performed the instrument there.
Gurunathan credits the concert hall’s then resident organist Dr Marc Rochester for guiding and preparing him for the hall’s Klais pipe organ.
“The original plan was not even to have a recital. It was meant for the documentary, Pipe Dreams.”
The channel’s producers, however, had other ideas and pressed Gurunathan to give a recital on the “king of instruments”.
“The blessing in all of this is that it forced me to fine-tune my skills at an accelerated pace for the event, and landed me in a pressure-cooker of sorts!”
For the low-key Gurunathan, who regarded the instrument as his way to glorify God, the concert was a turning point in his vocation.
When asked about his approach to make more people interested in playing the pipe organ, he said: “It’s just like any other instrument, but slightly on a different stage. My organ mentor, Rochester, calls it a machine.
“The player is challenged to make it sound musically right for it to be appreciated.
“I am hoping to inspire more young people to appreciate the joy of making amazing music on the pipe organ.”