CONTINUITY IS THE KEY TO SUCCESS : BSO AT 30

CONTINUITY IS THE KEY TO SUCCESS : BSO AT 30

Chetana Nagavajara

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The 30th Anniversary Celebration Concert of the Bangkok Symphony Orchestra at the Thailand Cultural Centre on 10 March 2013 proved one very important point: continuity and tradition do count in the domain of music. 30 years are nothing in the life of an orchestra. In the meantime, other orchestras have emerged, whether as permanent or crash ensembles. At least, one of these is professionally managed and better financed, giving regular concerts of classical music under a permanent conductor. Other ensembles have been more adventurous, going outwards to win awards in the West. The BSO has not always been in good health. For a number of years it has struggled to survive financially, and it does not even dare to announce an annual programme of classical music. But the concert last Sunday proved beyond any doubt that it is still Thailand’s best orchestra. How and why?
My answer is very simple. It is a highly sensitive ensemble, sensitive to the guidance provided by the conductor. It was the right decision to invite such an able conductor as Michel Tilkin to direct the orchestra on this occasion. Gustav Mahler’s controversial remark, “There are no bad orchestras, only bad conductors”, may not always be true, but it is worth listening to him. How come that a poorly managed orchestra like the BSO has been able to maintain its preeminence among Thai symphony orchestras? Have its rivals been plagued by bad conductors, some of whom are engaged on a permanent basis? Is it better to have distinguished conductors guest-conduct an orchestra than engaging a mediocre conductor? Is it presumptuous to talk of the BSO as if it were the Vienna Philharmonic, which has no permanent conductor? These questions can be debated endlessly.
The Opening Speech by Khun Atchara Tejapaibul, Director, Secretary-General and Treasurer of the Bangkok Symphony Orchestra Foundation set me thinking. She said how a group of musician came to her for help and how her family decided to put its efforts together to found a symphony orchestra. She was speaking from the management’s point of view. But there is another facet of equal or even greater importance. The Foundation did well in honouring 3 members of the orchestra who have been there since its inception and have survived the 30 years full of countless vicissitudes. Continuity is the key-element. It need not be a continuity provided by the entire orchestra. Musical continuity cannot be described in concrete terms; you can feel it intuitively. Every time I go to Leipzig and hear the Gewandhaus Orchestra, I can sense that continuity. But perhaps continuity of purpose counts as much. Among the congratulatory messages printed in the commemorative programme, I find Dr. Poonpit Amatayakul’s “history of Western classical music in Thailand” in one paragraph most illuminating. The BSO has its ancestors whom it should not have failed to recognize. In front of me was seated H.E. the Privy Councillor Mom Luang Usni Pramoj, founder of the Pro Musica Orchestra, that literally begot the BSO. He and the late Acharn Kamthorn Snitwongse persuaded a group of classical musicians – both amateur and professional – to subjugate themselves to the dictates of an “Occidental Despot”, named Hans Günther Mommer, whom the Goethe Institute assigned to train the Thai orchestra. Without that solid foundation, classical music in Thailand would not have come this far, or might not have survived at all.
Naturally we should not overlook the contribution made by younger Western-trained professionals who have lent strength to the orchestra.

I have said little about the performance itself, because I can easily assume that those of us who were there must have been satisfied with the professional quality of the BSO. I was somewhat worried at first that the Egmont Overture was a little shaky, and the ensemble certainly lacked unity. But when Siripong Tiptan began playing the Violin Concerto by Max Bruch, superbly accompanied by the orchestra, I felt relieved. Lord Yehudi Menuhin once described the conductor Sir John Barbirolli’s role as accompanist with the term “superlative”, and I would like to say the same with Michel Tilkin. Siripong’s approach was marked by good taste and mellifluous sound. The slow movement, especially, was captivating. I may be permitted to talk about musical lineage in this context. Siripong was a pupil of Chuchart Phitaksakorn, who was a pupil of Suthin Thesarak, who was mostly self-taught. On this very same stage of the Thailand Cultural Centre some years back, the late Suthin Thesarak played 3 violin concerti in one concert at the age of 73, one of which was the Max Bruch Violin Concerto. What would Suthin have said about Siripong’s performance? Let me guess. First, he would have definitely said, “I’m very proud of you, pupil of my pupil.” And he might have added, “Young man, you could have been a little more adventurous!” He himself, as I heard him then, was very adventurous, highly dramatic, in spite of wrong notes and murky passages. So was our ancestor! Suthin was the hero of my youth and still retains a special place in my heart.
The summit of the concert was definitely Symphony No. 2 by Rachmaninoff. I had been informed that the musicians themselves wanted to play this symphony. Its length might have deterred some musicians and conductors, but the BSO tackled it with spirit and sensitivity. The characteristic of each movement was brought out to the full, and the playing was of high standard throughout. It was an enjoyable work, suitable for the occasion. No false grandeur, no pompous exhibitionism, just sheer pleasure of music-making! We listeners were all grateful to these dedicated musicians who on this occasion gave us their best.
My advice to the BSO: Stick with this conductor! He is a worthy successor to Hikotaro Yazaki!

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