Siam Society

The Silpakorn University String Orchestra at the Siam Society on May 26, 2015.

Chetana Nagavajara

The veracity of this statement was confirmed by the Silpakorn University (Youth) String Orchestra in the evening of May 26, 2015. Determination on the part of students and teachers has borne fruit. These youngsters, half of them hailing from up-country, had the audacity to revert to the old European tradition of playing without a conductor, thus turning chamber music into an intimately shared experience. We could observe that they were listening to each other all the time. In a varied programme ranging from Baroque via Classic to 20th century, they convinced us with their irresistible vivacity and captivating musicality. Their Mozart had style, something that most Thai “professional” orchestras cannot achieve. The Hong Thaew Conservatory has stunned us once again with a pleasant surprise.

When the second campus of Silpakorn University was launched in Nakorn Pathom in 1968, there were plans to establish a Faculty of Music there, with both Thai and Western classical music. Only half of that dream did come true: a few pupils of the great Luang Pradit Phairoh were there in Nakorn Pathom to help us with Thai classical music, and members of the Duriya Praneet School were ready to travel 50 kilometers to NK to act as part-time teachers. It was impossible to do the same with Western classical music, whose protagonists were all concentrated in the capital city. It was only 30 years later that the music-loving lady President of Silpakorn, Prof. Trungchai Buranasomphop, took up the idea and, against all kinds of malicious harassment, successfully established the Faculty of Music at Taling Chan, known then as the “Car Park Conservatory”, because she had turned part of a car park into temporary premises for the new music school – before it graduated into the “Hongthaew (row house) Conservatory”. But that’s a different story.

My point is that we have had to travel a very, very long way before reaching the Siam Society on May 26, 2015.

2015-05-28 09.38.05 HDR

The String Department of the Faculty of Music is located in a row house (Hongtheaw) at Taling Chan

Allow me to get back to the concert proper. The first item on the programme was the well-known Divertimento No.1 in D Major (K.136) by Mozart. Only after a few bars, the sound of this youth orchestra caught my attention, as it was rich, opulent, resonant and sonorous. Perhaps this was the “German sound” that German critics nastily accused Sir Simon Rattle some years ago of losing from the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra. How could this Thai student orchestra, far removed in time and place from the originating culture, produce that sound, which a world-class chamber orchestra like the American Orpheus Chamber Orchestra could not produce (or did not want to produce), when it visited us in Bangkok over a decade ago. Perhaps we owe it to the unique acoustics of the main hall of the Siam Society, unmatched by any modern concert hall in the country for chamber music. (Hence, a plea to the Siam Society to have its air-conditioning system overhauled as soon as possible, please ๆๆๆ.) I have been told that an emeritus professor from the Leipzig Conservatory (the house that Mendelssohn built) was on a visit and had 2-3 short sessions with the orchestra. How could the youngsters retain all those corrections and suggestions made by the professor without having him there to conduct them? There are so many things in music that defy logical explanation. The fact remains that the Mozart Divertimento proved to be a real “diversion” for a Bangkok audience; there was not a single moment that we could feel that the musicians were playing under stress and strain. They did not only make us enjoy the music, but they were enjoying themselves too. There is no equivalent to the German term “Musizieren” (which can only be roughly translated as “music-making), but the German word can really describe the playing of these young students. Another prominent feature of their playing needs to be mentioned: the intonation was good throughout, and that has not always been the strength of our string orchestras.

Once they had proved their prowess in terms of ensemble, they were now ready to engage in solo playing in Vivaldi’s Concerto for Two Violins in A minor. The Concertmaster and the Principal Second Violin appeared as soloists and without a conductor. The orchestra had no problem with this arrangement, for they must have been well schooled in chamber music to start with. I could notice that the two soloists were not trying to ape the mannerism of virtuosi, or were not as yet ready to appear as such, but were playing the solo parts as an integral component of the ensemble. This approach was appropriate for a student orchestra. They still have a lot to learn and have plenty of time to grow up. So having no conductor turned out to be the best guarantee of unity and cohesion. At this point, I cannot help being reminded of a video recording of the performance of this concerto by Isaac Stern and the Concertmaster of the Israel Philharmonic Orchestra. In that performance, the orchestra was conducted by none other than Maestro Zubin Mehta, who was doing everything in his command to convince the audience that his role was indispensable. I for one would think that the Maestro was redundant. The string teachers at the Hongthaew Conservatory harked back to the old tradition of Europe, and their students proved the point very well that musicians are there to serve the music and not to serve themselves. By the way, a better violin should have been lent to the second soloist, as the sound of her instrument was rather thin. Otherwise she played very well, with just the right measure of confidence.

Good teachers normally give their students an opportunity to rise to a challenge, and what could have been a better challenge to string players than a string quartet? After the intermission, four players, namely the Concertmaster, the Principal Second Violin, the Principal Violist and the Principal Cellist, tackled Mozart’s String Quartet No.3 in G Major (K.156). Though an early work that is technically not very demanding, the demands in terms of style are immense, especially for musicians coming from a different culture. Besides, in a string quartet, every player is “exposed” and has to bear full responsibility. The four Silpakorn students responded well to task of bridging cultural divides, exhibiting an assured sense of style and admirable flexibility in tones and moods. They must have been well trained by their teachers. The outer movements, especially, were executed with engaging rhythmic vitality. It was only in the slow movement that a certain sluggishness crept in occasionally. They will surely mature with time so as to be able to capture the contemplative side of Western music, and chamber music is the best means to achieve that maturity. That their teachers had decided to put them through a test with a string quartet and to expose them to a “public hearing” speaks for their pedagogic ambitions, for after all, in the words of Lord Yehudi Menuhin, “the string quartet is the greatest contribution Europe has made to world civilization”. We know that at least two of their teachers went through the school of Yehudi Menuhin. The youngsters were doing their best to continue that great tradition, in their own small way, maybe.

The rest of programme was smooth sailing. The Capriol Suite by the British composer Peter Warlock contains tunes that are familiar to most of us, although many of us might not be able to identify the composer. It would appear that rhythmic assurance is the strength of the Silpakorn musicians, and they played this modern suite in Renaissance style with gusto and exuberance. Two items by the American composer Leroy Anderson, namely Blue Tango and Jazz Pizzicato, rounded off the programme to the satisfaction of those on stage and those in the auditorium. The applause was thunderous, but the inhabitants of a Hongthaew in Taling Chan did not know that they were expected to reappear onstage to take the “curtain call”. In their pristine innocence, perhaps success did not mean something coming from outside, but an inner contentment engendered by music-making. I have not waited in vain for 47 years for the arrival of such talents amidst the cultural no-man’s-land called Silpakorn University.


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