Chetana Nagavajara



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It was a very, very long evening. An unusually long concert was staged in a festive mode in the evening of 8 January 2013 on Sanam Luang to celebrate the 80th birthday of Her Majesty the Queen. The visitors most probably meant well by treating their Thai audience to gems of Western classical music that normally are not the staple of open-air concerts. How could you bring off a supreme masterpiece like Mozart’s “Sinfonia Concertane for Violin and Viola”, K.364, on Phra Meru Ground? I greatly admired the two soloists, violinist Ilia Konovalov and violist Roman Spitzer, who tried their utmost to probe the depths of this composition and to communicate their artistry to us under very trying conditions. But the physical impediment was insurmountable. Amplification was no help, as it distorted the original sound of the instruments through which Mozart was trying to convey a message of spiritual dimensions. And such a spiritual experience was accessible to the Thai audience before, when Christoph Poppen visited us some years ago with the Munich Chamber Orchestra. It was the wrong decision to put this composition on the Sanam Luang programme.

Much of the blame must be put on the hosts. The sound system used for this evening of classical music was of the quality that an average Lukthung band would have found unacceptable. You just cannot treat a world-class orchestra this way. Mind you, Maestro Mehta and his orchestra are used to open-air concerts, as they often go out to entertain troops with classical music in military camps. But I am sure they do not have to confront such very, very basic technical shortcomings.

From the very first piece performed, Beethoven’s “Leonore Overture No.3”, the sound emitted through the loudspeakers was most “unclassical”, to say the least. It was hoarse, coarse, blurred, lacking in nuances. The orchestra too tried to adjust itself to the unbecoming environment, and the Overture was its first sacrifice. The off-stage fanfare suffered from unwanted echoes and retardations. The balance between the strings and the woodwinds was difficult to maintain. I doubt very much whether the conductor had a chance to test out the sound system before the concert.

The maestro must have felt happier when he got to the third item on the programme, Rimsky-Korsakov’s “Capriccio espagnol”, Opus 34, as this composition lends itself better to a concert of this kind. The lively rhythms, the jocund mood pervading the entire piece, the opportunities for instrumentalists and instrumental groups to shine out, all this contributed to creating a showpiece that we could all enjoy. But again the amplification was defective: we could hardly hear the solo part played by the concertmaster. All in all, the first half of the concert ended in a happy note that more or less promised greater things to come.

I shall refrain from talking about the sumptuous food and drinks to which the guests were entertained during the intermission, for these could not take the sting out of the deplorable sound system. I could guess that Maestro Mehta must have reflected deeply on how to deal with the rest of the concert. Brahms’s “Symphony No.1” was played like Tchaikovsky’s “1812 Overture”, very dramatic, very loud and noisy; away with the fine nuances and the notion of Brahms, the introvert. He became an extrovert, an exhibitionist even. Although this may go against the grain, but it must have happened by design, and not by default. The timpanist had a grand time; he became the star of the evening, playing a concerto for timpani that Brahms did not compose but which came into being at the behest of the sound engineer and was encouraged by the benign conductor, who wanted to please his helpless and hapless hosts. While the maestro could find a way out for the outer movements, he could hardly solve the problems besetting the inner movements. The introspective mood of the slow movement was difficult to handle, and he reluctantly had to leave it to the amplification system. Unfortunately, the sound engineer did not take notice of the concertmaster with his solo part. So he became almost inaudible.

Two encores were given, and this was done with a deliberate strategy. Since Thailand could not, or rather did not want to, transmit live the New Year’s Concert by the Vienna Philharmonic, the “Thunder and Lightning Polka” and the “Radetzky March” were performed in such an endearing way, with Maestro Mehta conducting the audience just like in the Musikvereinsaal on the first of January. So the concert concluded with a big bang. (It could not have possibly concluded with a whimper!)

The temporary concert venue was constructed in such a way as to have us watch the orchestra with the illuminated Wat Phra Kaew and the Grand Palace in the background, a lovely sight, which, alas, was not matched by the electronically amplified sound. It was a wise decision on the part of the Thai authorities not to disrupt the daily life of the people around the area. The buses were running as usual, including, I assume, the tempestuous, indomitable Bus No. 60, which invariably stops only to pick up passengers in the middle of the street in front of the Supreme Court. Last night, I could not hear it thundering down the street anymore. It was completely subdued by the amplified sound of Brahms’s “First Symphony”.

It was dark where I was sitting, and I could only read the programme after returning home. It is a picture book celebrating the greatness of Maestro Zubin Mehta. The booklet is full of his pictures, and the cover has him in a conducting posture with the Grand Place in the background. There is no doubt that the organizers of the concert want to associate him with their endeavour, in the hope that this one grandiose concert will put Thailand on the musical map of the world. By doing too much – in just one shot – the Thai hosts (and their misguided advisers) are trying to create a Bollywood saga for the maestro. Though hailing from Bombay himself, he has seen much, done much, achieved much; he has seen the world, conquered the musical world, and probably possesses sufficient immunity to exploitations via publicity stratagems.

Looking back at the plight of classical music in Thailand, much remains to be done, especially in terms of education – musical education as well as education of the public. The money expended on this one concert is perhaps enough to finance the education of many scores of talented Thai students at world-class conservatories. Benefactors with a lot of loose money to spend should travel to Venezuela in order to pick up some constructive ideas. But can you wait 30 years as the people there have done?

Before tackling big ideas, can we content ourselves with some small ideas? Many impecunious music students would have loved to buy affordable tickets to hear the Israel Philharmonic under Maestro Mehta. But as things stand in this country, those who are not interested get a chance to attend, whereas those who are really interested and will benefit from the experience are left out in the cold. This is a “failed state” indeed!