Mature Musicality

Two Thai virtuosos this month wowed a Prague audience

Siam Sinfonietta at Prague's Academy of Performing Arts with the new Thai ambassador Ureerat Chareontoh and the former Czech ambassador to Thailand Vítezslav Grepl in attendance. Tomáš Bazika

Somtow Sucharitkul and Siam Sinfonietta earlier this month gave a wonderful concert in the Czech Republic's capital, Prague, as part of their European tour. The event was significant for several reasons. It marked the premiere on the Old Continent of Voraprach Wongsathapornpat's piece Temples Of Kyoto, Trisdee Na Patalung's Restoration, and Somtow's Helena Citrónová suite. For many of the young musicians, the tour occasioned their first performance in Europe and "their first time encountering the particular warmth of the Czechs and the intensity of their love for music". The excited audience at Prague's Academy of Performing Arts (HAMU) bestowed a long standing ovation on Somtow and Sinfonietta for their mature musicality.

The centrepiece of the programme was an orchestral suite of four scenes from Somtow's new opera Helena Citrónová. The opera sets to music the true story of a "beautiful and terrifying relationship" between a Slovak Jewish woman, a captive in a World War II concentration camp, and an SS prison guard named Franz Wunsch. Somtow saw a BBC documentary and could not get the subject out of his mind. He explains what drew him to Citrónová: "The story has so many things to tell us today. It asks questions that make us question all that makes us human. What is love, in the end? And can love possibly exist in a situation as extreme as Auschwitz?"

Somtow treated the delicate subject sensitively. Siam Sinfonietta's premiere of the Citrónová suite had a glowing reception in Slovakia, where the orchestra appeared on television news. The composer has dealt with the Holocaust in music before, when he staged -- with the help of the Czech embassy in Bangkok -- Hans Krása's children's opera Brundibár, the first Czech opera to have been performed in Thailand. During the war, Brundibár was performed more than 50 times inside the Theresienstadt concentration camp by children imprisoned there. For the Thailand production of Brundibár, Thai children created their own costumes with Jewish stars in a moving gesture of respect.

Somtow will present the world premiere of the complete Citrónová in January 2020 in Bangkok to commemorate the 75th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz. According to Marek Klimeš, director of the Czech music festival Festa Musicale, productions of Citrónová in the Czech Republic and Slovakia are in talks. Klimeš has worked extensively on Siam Sinfonietta's 2019 tour. He is known for organising the international choir festival Grand Prix Thailand. The annual festival takes place in Pattaya and is slated for its 13th incarnation in July 2020.

On the same occasion, a book of Somtow's short stories translated into Czech was launched. Titled A Day In Mallworld, it contains four stories, of which three have been translated by the Czech diplomat and friend of Somtow of 30 years, Jaroslav Olša Jr, who organised the publication with Zdenek Rampas, a noted Czech science-fiction publisher. It is the first literary work by a Thai author to be translated and published in the famously challenging Czech language. The book launch before the concert was co-organised by the Czech-Thai Society in Prague. The new Thai ambassador to the Czech Republic, Ureerat Chareontoh, supported the concert and hosted a reception for the musicians.

Perhaps the most striking moment of the evening was Sassaya Chavalit's inspired rendition of Helena Citrónová's soprano aria. She sang beautifully:

Somtow Sucharitkul and the former Czech ambassador to the Philippines Jaroslav Olša Jr at the Day In Mallworld book launch with the famous Prague castle in the background. Photos courtesy of Tomáš Bazika

Sassaya embodied Helena's loneliness. Her poignant singing offered to transport each listener to a place beyond reach. The intensely powerful music enveloped the auditorium with a momentary darkness until a glimmer of hope emerged. Somtow said he was fascinated by Citrónová's ambiguous quality. His music renders ambiguity in a way that makes it a virtue; it enables each individual to draw his or her own personal interpretation of the work. We are left to ponder that, in stealing humanity from our victims, we lose our own humanity. Helena is a woman who, despite being trapped in hell, refused to give up her personhood. But the opera is also the story of Wunsch, who "found redemption in this woman's refusal, redemption in the very thing that he had been taught not to regard as a person".

Musically, Somtow achieves ambiguity by pioneering a new compositional method of combining two seemingly incompatible approaches. "Strict 12-tone music is placed on top of surging romantic harmonies," he says; however, "their effect should be subliminal". For instance, in Sassaya's aria, the music between her singing is serial -- mathematically manipulated -- whereas the aria itself is in a "very slowed-down klezmer mode". If the purpose of serial music is to escape tonality, then Somtow's technique embraces it. The music simply reflects the dichotomy of the whole opera: a Jew falling in love with a Nazi. A telling example of Somtow's use of musical form to create meaning is the four-note "train" motif, first heard in the Overture, which "weaves itself into every aspect of the opera, like a trauma that cannot be erased".

Half of the programme belonged to a Czech youth orchestra. The Nové Mesto nad Metují Philharmonic performed a gratifying selection of works by Bizet, Shostakovich and Prokofiev. The most memorable were the riveting violin fireworks by Petr Zdvihal in Sarasate's Zigeunerweisen (Gypsy Airs), with fine orchestral textures brought out by conductor Jaroslav Rybácek. A palpable sense of collaboration between two excellent orchestras, Thai and Czech, permeated the evening, which cemented the amiable relations between the two countries. In closing, Siam Sinfonietta gave a warm reading of Alexandra, one of King Rama IX's beloved love songs, with a violin solo played splendidly by Kye Teesin. Having performed in Munich, Budapest, Bratislava and Prague, the Thai orchestra went on to Baden-Baden for the final concert of their tour before returning to Bangkok.