A musical greeting to Japan

Japanese-Thai relations were celebrated by the RBSO in Tokyo

Centre three from left to right, Poom Prommachart (pianist), Koji Kawamoto (conductor) and Kittinant Chinsamran (bass baritone) with the RBSO. Apipar Norapoompipat

As Japanese conductor Koji Kawamoto waved his baton in one swift motion, the 63 musicians of the Royal Bangkok Symphony Orchestra filled Tokyo's acoustically stunning Suntory Hall with an unfamiliar tune.

It was a modern piece -- almost like a military march, full of snare drums and trumpets. One could think that the big sound was from a Hollywood adventure movie. But the song, called Serenity, was actually penned by HRH Princess Sirivannavari Nariratana. Though it was an unexpected choice, it was in a way a symbolic start to the diverse programme that they played on that auspicious night.

Even though Thai-Japanese relations have existed since the early 1600s, Sept 26 marked the 130th anniversary of Thailand and Japan's official diplomatic relationship, which officially began when Prince Devavongse Varopakarn of Siam and the vice-foreign minister of Japan signed the Declaration of Amity and Commerce. Ever since, exchanges between the two countries have developed, with Japan being the number-one investor and the second-largest trading partner to Thailand this year. The investments and trade encompass almost every sector: politics, business, culture, arts, sciences, technology, sports, tourism, education, research. This goes down to the grassroots level.

As one of Thailand's closest allies, the Thai Embassy in Japan saw an opportunity to not only let Japanese audiences witness the crème de la crème of the Thai classical world and show off the musical creations of the Thai royal family, it was also to symbolically build their relationship even further through a collaboration between a Thai orchestra and a Japanese conductor.

"This is the first time collaborating with Koji Kawamato," said RBSO General Manager Wanchai Yanubol.

Based in Germany, Kawamoto is a prominent Japanese conductor who has performed with more than 40 orchestras in over 30 countries. He was the director of the Radio Symphony Orchestra Pilsen in the Czech Republic and also served as principal conductor of the North East German Philharmonic.

"We chose him due to his heritage and his understanding of the essence of Asian music," Wanchai continued. "The accent matches that of Thai songs, and it shows the relationship between the two sides. Orchestras require a lot of teamwork whereby [they play as a whole, and] no one should stand out."

Harald Link and piano soloist Poom Prommachart.

Performing for a full house of distinguished Thai and Japanese guests, the harmonious relationship between Koji and the band was evident. Poom Prommachart's rendition of Chopin's Piano Concerto No.1 In E Minor Op 11 moved and awed audiences with his light, technical and emotional playing. Bass baritone Kittinant Chinsamran entertained the crowd with his powerful rendition of Handel's The Trumpet Shall Sound from Messiah and a playful interpretation of Mozart's Madamina! Ill Catalogo E Questo from the composer's last and best-known opera, Don Giovanni.

After intermission, the band played their finale: Fantasia On Themes Of HM King Bhumibol Adulyadej, a 45-minute symphony penned for the late king's 60th-birthday celebration by Japanese jazz composer and pianist Norio Maeda. The four movements utilised melodies from King Bhumibol, including Magic Beams, Lovelight In My Heart, Echo, Lullaby, Falling Rain, Love In Spring, and Never Mind The H.M Blues -- exposing the Japanese audience to music of the king, and Thai audiences to versions of these songs they've never heard before. After a large round of applause, Koji announced that they would be playing two encores, King Rama VI's Yuan Yaleh and Kyu Sakamoto's Sukiyaki, probably the best-known Japanese melody to Thais, providing a touching end to the auspicious night.

With audiences chatting excitedly and eagerly waving at the musicians on stage, the concert was deemed a success. Conductor Koji, who had rehearsed with the band for four days before the show, could finally take a breath of fresh air.

"Normally musicians feel very tired after concerts, but after a good concert, they're both tired and excited," he said right after the show. "I was so happy to have this concert. The orchestra is quite talented. I only had one chance to listen to this orchestra [10 years ago], and I'm really positively surprised [how much] they have improved. The most important thing about people in Thailand, including the orchestra members, is that they are very kind. They create a good atmosphere in rehearsals, and we really had a good time together."

Underneath this musical success and improvement would have to be the orchestra's Royal Patronage by the then-HRH Crown Prince Maha Vajiralongkorn -- now His Majesty King Maha Vajiralongkorn -- in addition to its long-time sponsor B. Grimm.

"As we see from tonight, it's really worth it," said Harald Link, chairman of B. Grimm after the show. "Classical music is something wonderful, beautiful and really good for people's hearts and happiness. But only a few support it. [Bangkok] as an international city needs to have such an orchestra so people all over the world can listen, and so Thais can also have this happiness in their hearts. We see that if we don't support [them], it's very difficult for the orchestra to continue going, so we went in fully."

"The moment you have a wonderful orchestra, people think you have developed very well, and that you're at the forefront of civilisation," he continued. "The Japanese and Thai governments chose the Royal Bangkok Symphony Orchestra to celebrate such an important event -- [showing] indeed that classical music is a universal language that transcends national boundaries and links people from all over the world."

Koji Kawamoto with the orchestra during rehearsals.

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