When I moved to Bangkok almost 4.5 years ago, the first thing I did was scour the music and arts scene, an essential component for me when it comes to any of the cities I’ve lived and worked in. Beijing’s classical music scene was growing when I lived there from 2003-2006, with the China Philharmonic just one of the many attractions, complemented by a number of fabulous concert venues. And this was before China built its spectacular National Centre for the Performing Arts ahead of the 2008 Olympics. Vancouver’s concert mix was impressive too, when I emigrated there in 2006, with the Vancouver Symphony Orchestra (VSO) attracting world-renowned soloists, along with superb events via the Vancouver Recital Society, the Chan Centre for the Performing Arts at the University of British Columbia and the Chopin Society.
When I returned to Bombay in 2010, the city of my birth, for what would eventually be a five-year period, it was a godsend to have the National Centre for the Performing Arts and the Symphony Orchestra of India (SOI) at hand to soothe the savage breast several times a month, including the Metropolitan Opera (New York) and National Theatre (London) broadcasts at the NCPA’s Godrej Theatre. It was with some trepidation, then, that I began my exploration of Bangkok’s music world, having grown accustomed to Bombay’s constant delights and wondering whether my thirst could be slaked in a city that – at least to my knowledge – wasn’t prominently placed on the Western classical music map, even in Asia, as, say, compared to Beijing, Seoul and Tokyo.
To my surprise and relief, I discovered that Bangkok has not one, but two, full-fledged orchestras, the Royal Bangkok Symphony Orchestra (RBSO) and the Thailand Philharmonic Orchestra (TPO), along with a number of music societies that host chamber music recitals. As well, the city hosts the month-long Bangkok International Festival of Music and Dance each year, usually straddling September and October, with orchestras, opera companies, ballet and “world music” from a range of countries delighting audiences at the massive Thailand Cultural Centre.Let me begin my online Bangkok music diaries, though, with what’s undoubtedly the crown jewel here – the Thailand Philharmonic, affiliated with the Mahidol College of Music at the world-renowned Mahidol University, and housed at the splendid Prince Mahidol Hall, one of the finest concert halls ever both in terms of acoustics and aesthetics.
The TPO, founded in 2005, has an annual concert season that stretches from November through the following September, with month-long breaks in April and October. Now halfway through its 14th season, the orchestra has almost 100 players from 15 countries, with a significant number from Thailand. Indeed, the number of Thai players has increased in just the four years I’ve been attending TPO concerts, nurtured and mentored by the Mahidol College of Music and its multicultural faculty, some of whom play with the orchestra as well. The orchestra currently lists four main conductors, ten guest conductors and commissions several composers to create new works each season, with five composers (four of them Thai) on the roster this year alone.
“April showers bring May flowers”, as the saying goes, and it’s certainly proved true musically for the TPO. April is one of the hottest months in Bangkok, with the mercury regularly hitting 38 degrees Celsius, compounded by high humidity – oppressive weather and a perfect time for the orchestra to take a break. This year, April seemed hotter than ever, but we experienced a couple of massive downpours towards the end of the month that temporarily cooled the place down a tad, just before the TPO season resumed in the first week of May.
TPO concerts are held on Friday evenings (7pm) and Saturday afternoons (4pm); I’ve always attended the Saturday performances, as getting all the way to Mahidol University in Salaya (about 25 km from Bangkok) is easier traffic-wise than compared to Friday evenings. Also, the daytime is better for enjoying Prince Mahidol Hall’s beautiful surroundings – a huge, green campus – and having a post-concert dinner at the excellent Music Square restaurant enclosed within the Mahidol College of Music, just across the road.
The first concert of the month, dubbed “Russian Reveries” (May 3 – 4), featured the Italian violinist Francesca Dego, a Deutsche Grammophon recording artiste who’s been making quite a name for herself in recent years, in a solid performance of Dmitri Shostakovich’s Violin Concerto No. 1 (A minor, Op. 77). It was originally composed in 1947-48 but, thanks to the composer’s political woes under Stalin, premiered only in 1955 (well after Stalin’s death in 1953, and briefly re-numbered Op. 99) by its dedicatee, David Oistrakh, with the Leningrad Philharmonic under Yevgeny Mravinsky.
The concerto is one of Shostakovich’s most celebrated works, and deservedly so, encapsulating the composer’s genius in four movements, alternatively introspective and melancholic (but never self-indulgent) on one hand, lurching towards spiky – even manic – on the other. Dego was at her finest in the Passacaglia, the third movement and the heart of the work, with gorgeous tone, the orchestra a wonderful support under the baton of fellow Italian Alfonso Scarano, now in his second season as chief conductor of the TPO (having served as guest conductor for six consecutive prior seasons). The other three movements were impressive as well, the entire work well thought out and beautifully played; perhaps a bit too beautifully (although it’s ungrateful to carp), as I missed some of the bite that the work also demands, including in the second and – especially – the fourth movements.
Serge Rachmaninoff’s Symphony No. 2 (E minor, Op. 27) emerged in 1906-7, at a time when the composer had moved his family to Dresden, in Germany, to focus on composition again after two successful seasons as conductor at Moscow’s Imperial Opera. Still haunted by the initial failure of his first symphony in 1897, despite the subsequent success of his Piano Concerto No. 2 in 1904, Rachmaninoff lacked confidence in his abilities as a symphonist. He need not have worried; the work was a triumph, and remains one of the most celebrated symphonies to this day, its third movement, the Adagio, in particular memorable for its opening theme which returns to great effect later in the movement as well as the finale.
The symphony is particularly difficult to pull off successfully given its formidable length – at a full hour it’s one of the longest of its genre. But Scarano – who’s been taking the TPO through the Mahler symphonies in recent years – held the work together splendidly, eliciting not only gorgeous sounds from the TPO players (not least in the Adagio), but providing an interpretation that embraced the composer’s romanticism without wallowing in it. The orchestra was suitably athletic and nimble when needed, but more than able to provide dramatic weight and heft during climaxes – brass and winds particularly impressive.
The TPO’s programmes always include a mix of the familiar and the not-so, and the May 10-11 concerts were no exception. The Symphonic Dances, orchestrated from Leonard Bernstein’s stage musical West Side Story by the composer himself, were given top billing – and were very well played under Alfonso Scarano: “Somewhere” was particularly effective, although the Mambo could have benefited from a bit more oomph (“Mambo” needs to be shouted out more raucously, the finger-snapping needs a tad more snap; the TPO players were perhaps a bit too polite!).
Igor Stravinksy’s neoclassical Symphony in Three Movements – meant to depict the composer’s impressions of the horrors of World War Two — is quite a rarity in concert performance. While it’s considered the Russian expatriate composer’s first major work after emigrating to the United States (premiering with the New York Philharmonic in 1946, with the composer himself at the podium), it’s actually built out of earlier works that Stravinsky had abandoned or reorganized. For example, the piano’s presence in the first movement harks back to a piano concerto that was left incomplete. The second movement, with the harp prominently featured, has themes Stravinsky initially intended for the film The Song of Bernadette, a commission that instead went to the composer Alfred Newman. The third movement seamlessly weaves in elements of the first two. It’s both an easy and a tough work to listen to – the score is accessible but the work is hard-hitting, melody alternating with dissonance. Scarano obviously relished the idiom – this was a brilliant performance that served as a perfect foil to the Bernstein that followed it.
The first half of the concert yielded yet another rarity – the 20th century composer Luciano Berio’s orchestral arrangement of Johannes Brahms’ Clarinet Sonata No. 1, a straightforward adaptation that does not “modernize” the work, but remains faithful to the sound and feel of the original. The soloist – not surprisingly, perhaps – was Calogero Palermo from Sicily, principal clarinetist of the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra of Amsterdam since 2015, who is also the author and proponent of the Soli d’orchestra method, which creates arrangements for clarinet and piano of well-known works. Palermo’s gorgeous tone, evenly produced from the lowest to highest registers, exemplary phrasing and stupendous technique served the Brahmsian idiom beautifully, resulting in a performance that was all the more effective, and memorable, for being understated.
The Great Gate of Kiev
One of the Thailand Philharmonic’s strengths is that the orchestra has been carefully cultivated over the years by conductors who have worked with the players season after season, including its founding conductor Gudni Emilsson from Iceland, and the current chief conductor Alfonso Scarano of Italy.
Among the TPO’s frequent guest conductors is Jeffrey Meyer, currently Artistic Director of the St. Petersburg Chamber Philharmonic in Russia. His concerts on May 17-18 featured a Franco-Russian warhorse, Modest Mussorgsky’s Pictures at an Exhibition in the orchestration by Maurice Ravel. It’s a work that needs no introduction; one may argue that the orchestral version is even more frequently performed than the piano original. Ravel’s splendid orchestration requires a top-notch band to convey it successfully – and the TPO is technically up to the task, there’s no doubt.
But on this occasion, at least to my ears, accomplished though the orchestral playing was, the interpretation itself seemed uneven – effective in parts, strangely flat in others. The piece began well – the opening Promenade at a nice pace, not too brisk, not too slow, leading into a lurching Gnome. The Old Castle, however, was a bit too rushed (with a slightly off-key opening to the celebrated saxophone solo), while the Ballet of Unhatched Chicks wasn’t frenetic enough – a bit too plodding. Bydlo was well-judged, but Catacombs could have been infused with more dread – after all, “the skulls begin to glow softly” according to the composer’s liner notes to the score – while Baba Yaga (The Hut on Hen’s Legs) perhaps needed a bit more hysteria in depicting the witch’s flight, and its coda – so fiendish in the both the piano original and the orchestral version – lost a bit of steam as it led right into the Great Gate of Kiev which in itself was brilliantly played, the orchestra coming together effectively across the instrumental spectrum.
The first half of the concert was far better, opening with a brisk Sri Ayutthaya, a traditional Thai melody orchestrated by the TPO’s resident conductor Prateep Suphanrojn, followed by a truly superb work, the Concertino Cusqueno by the American Gabriela Lena Frank who is of Lithuanian-Jewish and Chinese-Peruvian descent, and perhaps one of the most exciting composers today. Frank describes this work as a tribute to her hero, the British composer Benjamin Britten, imagining what it would have been like to have taken him to Peru and shown him an Andean village market infused with the culture of her Inca ancestors. The work is startling in its originality, with a distinctive voice that begs to be further explored.
Another highlight was the melodious (albeit somewhat facile, especially after the Frank) Trumpet Concerto No. 1 by the present-day prolific American composer and trumpeter James Stephenson and performed beautifully by Nitiphum Bamrungbanthum who became the TPO’s principal trumpet two years ago at the age of just 20. All the more astounding, he’s still pursuing his Bachelor of Music at Mahidol University, but has already achieved such a high standard of performance – a testament to the superb training he’s received in Thailand, and the fact that the TPO nurtures local talent and strengthens the orchestra with home-grown talent, wonderful to see.
Elgar’s Italian Journey
The final touch to the TPO’s May bouquet was a most satisfying programme (May 24-25) dubbed “Elgar’s Italian Journey” featuring the British composer’s tribute to the Italian Riviera, In the South (Op. 50) – a 21-minute concert overture that’s also referred to as a tone poem, with a brief viola solo. It was far more popular a few decades ago, and isn’t often performed in concert today – far less so than the Cockaigne Overture – but it’s a charming, cheerful work that is unmistakably Elgar, right from the opening theme to the flourishes at the end. The TPO delivered a strong performance, capturing the Elgarian idiom convincingly, under the baton of the young Greek conductor and clarinetist Dionysis Grammenos.
The maestro, who cuts a dashing figure at the podium with his matinee-idol looks, led a strong performance of Johannes Brahms’ Symphony No. 2 (D major, Op. 73), conveying both the cheerful nature that pervades the work as well as the drama that underlies it – not an easy balance to pull off. The lullaby motif in the first movement is tinged with melancholy, echoed further by the sombre mood of the Adagio that follows – the TPO’s cello section in top form here. The third movement was suitably light and taut, while the finale once again provided a nice contrast between light and shade, the concluding pages emerging in a burst of light.
Well done though the Elgar and Brahms were, the highlight of the concert for me – and, gauging from the eventual applause, much of the audience – was one of the most unusual concertos I have ever heard – Paul Creston’s Concertino for Marimba, composed in 1940, “designed to demonstrate the capabilities of the marimba as a solo instrument”, in the American composer’s own words. If you’ve never imagined the marimba to have those capabilities, well, this work will definitely change your perception of this fabulous instrument altogether.
The soloist, Johannes Fischer, is a percussionist par excellence, with breathtaking technique and an amazing touch – the spectrum of sound and feel created on the marimba were unbelievable. The work itself is superb; I’d frankly never heard of Paul Creston, but his story is remarkable as well, and this performance is spurring me to explore Creston’s work further, as well as seek out recordings by Fischer via the Internet.
As an encore, Fischer brought to the stage a shopping bag from which emerged an egg beater and a saucepan lid – proceeding then to hammer out a percussive piece with these items and the creative use of his right foot that not only conveyed strong rhythm but actually made this combination sing, a performance that had to be seen, as well as heard, to be believed. Sensational.
Superb though the Thailand Philharmonic’s concerts generally are, what is distressing is the lack of audience – at least on a Saturday afternoon. The Prince Mahidol Hall has a seating capacity of 2006, but all these years that I’ve been attending concerts, the audiences have been very small, usually the same people one sees week after week, sometimes augmented by school and college students who are provided free seats to help fill the hall.
Cultivating audiences for Western classical music is a challenge the world over, of course, but I do hope the TPO succeeds in building a wider following somehow. The distance from Bangkok to Prince Mahidol Hall is definitely a factor that puts some people off – although it takes barely an hour via SkyTrain and the Mahidol shuttle bus, far less time than one might spend on Bangkok’s Sukhumvit Road during rush hour trying to cross one kilometre.
But this is an issue for another article, at another time. For now, I’m just glad I’ve been able to introduce you to one of Asia’s cultural gems – the Thailand Philharmonic, one of the best reasons to live in Bangkok, the city I now call home.
All Images © Thailand Philharmonic Orchestra