The key to cultivation of classical music

A year ago when I visited Bangkok, I went to listen to the great “Das Lied von der Erde” by Gustav Mahler, performed by Thailand Philharmonic Orchestra. I was surprised by the orchestra’s very high level, in a country which apparently doesn’t have any tradition of classical music. This time when I went to listen Mahler’s 9th symphony under Italian conductor Alfonso Scarano on February 13, 2016. I was afraid that the previous year, the orchestra’s 10th anniversary, was a peak year which would be followed by a downfall, but happily, I was mistaken. The performance was excellent. The concert, began, as customary with the Thai royal anthem followed by traditional Thai music. It was immediately obvious that the conductor and the orchestra took this part very seriously and not just because they have to. This piece of Thai music is based on the traditional Chicken Dance and is very light and pleasing. It is traditional Thai music in a Western costume, that was enriched by a beautiful orchestration. Then came the turn of a new piece, “Seismic Waves”, a Concerto for flute and orchestra by the Thai composer, Narong Prangcharoen, who is the orchestra’s resident composer. The brilliant playing of the soloist Massimo Mercelli, a famous Italian flute player, who once also performed in Jerusalem, emphasized the virtuoso style of the Concerto, which successfully combines elements of traditional Thai music with modern Western composing. The piece was received enthusiastically by the audience. It is worth noting that the successful and dogged policy of the orchestra’s founder to promote traditional national art not at the expense of great composers like Beethoven or Mahler or even to present the folk music as one of equal importance to classical music, but just to give each category its proper place. So the orchestra’s real test was of course Mahler’s Ninth Symphony. This music requires the orchestra and the conductor to not only have a very high technical level, but emotional maturity as well. Mahler was superstitious and was afraid that the 9th symphony would be his last, just like Beethoven’s, Schubert’s and Bruckner’s, whom he loved very much. That is why he called the great oeuvre, which he wrote after the 8th symphony, ‘Das Lied von der Erde” and not ‘the 9th symphony’, just like Jews give a new name to a sick child to ward off the angel of death. Then the angel of death probably smiled and said; ‘o.k. Mahler, next time.’ He probably realized that Mahler had no choice, but to write the 9th symphony. Mahler wrote it when he already had a fatal heart disease, as if he was in the next world already. I played this symphony many times and I know it well, so I wondered how an orchestra completed with such young musicians, could understand the music which was written while waiting for impending death by someone who said about himself: “I am a person whose homeland was denied me three times: as a Czech among the Austrians, as an Austrian among the Germans and as a Jew all over the world.” But Alfonso Scarano and Thailand’s Philharmonic made it perfectly. Everything sounded right, the pain, the feeling of approaching tragedy, as well as making peace with it. It was as if the orchestra plunged into the soul of the Jewish composer on his deathbed. Scarano didn’t go out of his way – he used restricted hand movements. He totally controlled the orchestra but it seemed like the orchestra members love and understand him completely. I know from an experience of many years that when the conductor’s interpretation isn’t convincing, no manual technique will do. The orchestra won’t be focused or will simply be indifferent. In this case it was obvious that the players understood him perfectly and with him, gave the music their soul. The musicians respected status to understand better how they built such a high level orchestra in South East Asia, I talked again with the orchestra’s artistic director and founder, Dr. Sugree, who is also Dean of College of Music, Mahidol University. I asked him specific questions right away, about the orchestra’s budget, the policy of recruiting the musicians and how to decide what the orchestra’s program will be, because it is admirable, to say the least. This season there are 30 programs, among them not less than 5 symphonies of Mahler’s, 2 Brahms’ symphonies, “The Rite of Spring”, “The Fire Bird” and “Pulcinella” by Stravinsky, Bartok’s Concerto for an orchestra and many other very complicated works of music! But that is not all. Dr. Sugree, who used to be a saxophone player, really loves wind instruments, and in the current program are no less than 8 Concertos for different wind instruments and orchestra and above all, 9 premiers of new compositions. He definitely doesn’t aim just to please the audience, isn’t finding the easy way out and isn’t afraid of any challenge and it is all worthwhile. This policy helps him recruit very good conductors and soloists. Prominent among them is Alfonso Scarano. Although Scarano is not the Chief conductor or even a Principal Guest conductor, he conducts more prestigious programs, then anyone else. For example, this season he conducts Stravinsky and 3 out of 5 of Mahler’s symphonies. I attended one of his rehearsals and I can testify that his demands from the orchestra are uncompromising. His strictness not only doesn’t prevent him from gaining the musicians’ fondness, but also increases their motivation, and, as noted earlier, it’s worthwhile (…) I noticed that compared to last year there are less foreign musicians and more Young Thais took their place. That means that College of Music, Mahidol University, headed by Prof. Sugree, provides high level musicians. For example, when the excellent Latvian violinist Inga Causa who last year was the principal of the second violin group, took the place of the Concertmaster, who left the orchestra, a very young Thai violinist Kamolmas Charoensook took her place, and lead the second violin section very successfully. Most of the orchestra’s musicians, especially string players, are very young, and they’ll likely remain in the orchestra for many years. When I asked Dr. Sugree where new graduates from the College will find jobs, he said that the best will find their place in playing and teaching, and the demand for musicians in South East Asia is high, so the young musicians will have plenty of work. As a matter of fact, soon, the indefatigable Dr Sugree will open an Orchestral Academy in Pattaya City, near Bangkok. If we add that Thailand Philharmonic Orchestra appears in a fancy auditorium with over 2,000 seats, built with Dr. Sugree’s initiative, it can be said for certain that his project – putting Thailand on the international map of classical music – succeeded beyond the wildest imagination. Eventually the key to success is very simple: he convinced the decision makers and rich people that this huge thing, High Culture, is done by limited number of people,and will relatively cost very little. Daniel Fradkin