THEY ROSE TO THE OCCASION: THE BANGKOK PRO MUSICA ORCHESTRA’S FIRST CONCERT IN LONDON

 The Bangkok Pro Muica in Berlin

 

I had never been to Cadogan Hall in London, which the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra has since made its home. An old church. converted into a concert hall, its acoustics is superb, and the Pro Musica was lucky to start off its European tour of 4 countries in London. An Englishman who knew the Thai musical scene well remarked to me after the concert: “This orchestra is so good that it should have performed standard Western repertoire along with the Royal Compositions – just to prove to Westerners what Thai musicians can do”.

What we saw on the stage was an ensemle consisting mainly of young and very young musicians, with their teachers placed in leading positions of the various sections. Essentially a string orchestra, it gave the wind players the opportunity to appear as soloists – that was what had been designed by H.E. Mom Luang Usni Pramoj, who had arranged the royal compositions for this orchestra and was conducting it on this European tour. Being a violinist himself, Acharn Mom did see to it that the strings did shine out, with occasions for the concertmaster to perform many mellifluous passages. There is no doubt at all that our strings have improved beyond description over the years, with the youngsters getting proper training from properly trained teachers.
The sound we heard was rich – with no bad intonation.

As for Acharn Mom, it must have been a source of great gratification for him to be able to take this orchestra on a European tour, an orchestra which he and the late Acharn Khamthorn Snidwong founded 50 years ago, with the Goethe Institute providing rudimentary help the the form of a conductor, Herr Hans Guenther Mommer. (He was savage as an orchestra trainer, but the orchestra improved in no time.)

What could have been a better way to tell Westerners that the Thai could exert themselves in Westerners’ own terms? And we owe all this to our King. The American expert on Thai language, culture and literature, Prof William Gedney of the University of Michigan, once made a stuuning remark that, in the Thai tradition, the elevation of a member of the royal lineage to the throne had also to do with the candidate’s artistic prowess. In this respect, the presently known as a “failed state” has not done badly at all in the cultural domain.

 

ENDING WITH A BIG BANG? THE BANGKOK PRO MUSICA’S FINAL CONCERT IN BERLIN

The European tour took the Bangkok Pro Musica Orchestra to 4 European capitals, namely, London, The Hague, Brussels and Berlin. I attended its first concert in London and am writing this second part of the review which deals with its 4th and final concert on Sunday, 30 September 2012, in a historic church in former East Berlin, the FranzÖsische Friedrichstadtkirche. Being a Thai, I cannot help feeling proud of the success that the Orchestra has received on this tour, which was without any doubt a daring adventure – an unknown orchestra playing an entire programme of an Oriental king’s compositions! Westerners had to be convinced, and judging from my experience of the two concerts, they were convinced that this music has substance and aesthetic quality.

What should be emphasized in this connection is that the Bangkok Pro Musica is a Western-style classical chamber orchestra, performing His Majesty’s works that were originally composed for a jazz band, then rearranged by the Privy Counsellor, Mom Luang Usni Pramoj, for a classical-style string orchestra with solo parts for wind instruments. M.L. Usni is classical violinist, violist, composer and conductor, who is also at home in jazz, having for many years played the trumpet in the King’s jazz band. This point needs to be stressed, for without this kind of background, M.L. Usni would not have been able to build a bridge that links up His Majesty’s compositions with the Western classical tradition. He has arranged these compositions for several kinds of ensemble, including the symphony orchestra. I still vividly remember the visit of the Vienna Symphony Orchestra to Bangkok some years ago. It was conducted by Raphael Fruebeck de Burgos, a maestro of international stature. Part of the programme was devoted to His Majesty’s compositions, and I can confirm that when played by a world-class orchestra, His Majesty’s works sounded very well indeed. The arrangements M.L. Usni has made for the chamber orchestra are refined and sophisticated, and call for a rendition by musicians at home in Western classical music. Beyond that, this kind of music demands an environment that allows the orchestra to demonstrate a wide range of dynamics and a transparency that shows up a differentiated structure. It requires attentive listening in a concert hall that is sensitive to the fine nuances that these arrangements are intent on creating.

Alas, the acoustics of the former French Huguenot church is not supportive of such refinement and sophistication. True, the church is regularly used by the Berliners themselves as a venue for chamber concerts, and I myself have attended some of these concerts. Most of the works performed are Baroque music. Of course, the Berlin musicians know the church well enough to be able to battle its peculiar acoustics, that allows some instruments to reverberate several times!
The Bangkok Pro Musica was not familiar with this venue. They had a terrible problem to overcome, and they decided to play with verve and gusto. Those who had not heard the orchestra’s previous concerts, must have found this last concert enjoyable and exhilarating. Its vivacity was  irresistible. The European tour ended with “a big bang”, so to speak. The Berlin audience, consisting of may Westerners, gave the orchestra a long, standing ovation. It could not have possibly realized that it had been listening to “a different orchestra” from the one that performed in the acoustically first-rate Cardogan Hall in London.

I have given attention to these “external” facets of music-making in the Western context, because I do sympathize with a “touring” orchestra that almost always has to confront unexpected problems. It depends on the resourcefulness, or rather on the resilience, on the part of the conductor and the musicians to deal with each problem in a particular way. The Pro Musica did not do badly at all under such circumstances.

What I could observe right from the very beginning of the concert was that the lower strings were having a grand time;the beautiful passages assigned to them, that normally do not stand out in a concert, came to full effect this time. The most prominent was the exquisite melody carried by the viola section in “Still on My Mind”. I had never heard any viola section of any Thai orchestra produce such a beautiful sound. On the whole, the musicians (let us not forget those youthful members of the orchestra) must have gained confidence after 3 concerts in 3 European countries, and the Berlin concert demonstrated their concerted effort to convince, yes, to convince the audience that they had the ability to communicate a music of real substance.

To remind us that the origin of all these works reside in the jazz idiom, the clarinet soloist played his solo part in a real jazzy style that was well supported by the initially classical-oriented orchestra. The acoustics that may have proved problematic on the whole, strangely enough, served as a kind of control mechanism to induce the wind soloists to blend with the orchestra, and not to outshine it. The oboe, the flute, the clarinet and the horn benefited from this. They were not meant to play in the concerto style to start with. (The bassoon only joined in with the full orchestra in the last piece.) The strangest thing that happened was that the piccolo – normally threatening its colleagues with it shrieking sound – was in the “Royal Marine March” subdued by the orchestra, probably reflecting the sobriety that one associates with a Huguenot church! I am not sure that the arranger wanted it to be that way, because a march is usually written for an open-air performance. The string sections on the whole had a great time without having to overexert themselves. Yet I did notice that the violins had to see to it that they were not drowned by their fellow string players in the other sections. The solo violin parts, exquisitely beautiful passages that M.L. Usni probably originally wrote for himself and assigned to the concertmaster, were not always distinctly audible, for example, in “Echo”, which did not quite come through to the place where I was sitting in the middle of the church. Perhaps there was a psychological problem on my part; I just could not obliterate from my memory the London performance, which I still regard as a musical experience of an exceptional order, musically, technically, and, last but not least, acoustically. Maybe I am being unfair to the Berlin concert organizers.

Perhaps what I have been saying up to now are just nuts and bolts in the way of music criticism.
If we examine the prime objective of organizing this European tour of the Bangkok Pro Musica Orchestra, we shall have to take cognizance that it is to strengthen the friendly relations with some European countries, which have existed for centuries. It was an ingenious idea to do that by making His Majesty’s compositions known to our Western friends by way of live performances by a Thai orchestra. Nobody could deny that these compositions are vested with a variety of moods and musical expressions. These are the works of an “amateur”, yes, an amateur in the etymological sense of the word, namely, one who loves.

Honour is thus done to the one who gives, to those who receive – and also to the intermediaries who help to communicate. The “big bang” in astronomy may signify the origin of the universe. What did the “big bang” that characterized the performance of the concluding concert of the Pro Musica represent?

 

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