A night to remember in Phuket

Maestro Somtow Sucharitkul and the Siam Sinfonietta bring their brilliance to the Pearl of the Andaman with a performance by young artists

The Asian Sinfonietta performs Mahler's Symphony No.4 in Phuket, on April 19. (Photo: SOMTOW SUCHARITKUL)

When I think of Phuket, I think about the beach -- nearby Koh Phi Phi with swimsuit and G-string clad partying 20-somethings trying to experience every excitement that life has to offer. That was until I was fortunate enough to attend the sold-out gala and premiere performance of the new Asian Sinfonietta Symphony.

This training orchestra, comprised of young artists from all over Asia, was the brainchild of world-famous Thai composer and science fiction author Somtow Sucharitkul. Somtow has been bringing concerts from Bangkok for some time, but now he has again exceeded expectations and launched this exciting start-up orchestra in the most ideal location in the world -- Phuket.

As I entered the posh ballroom, I immediately noticed a mix of cultures, from Dior to Crocs, a plethora of VIPs, including Phuket governor Narong Woonciew, Phuket mayor Saroj Angkanapilas, Angsana Laguna Phuket general manager Michal Zitek and Australian embassy consul general Matthew Barclay. Hors de oeuvres were served as Champagne and Prosecco filled flutes, while the beautiful sounding tings of joyous toasts were abounding throughout the room.

The concert, a huge programme of Beethoven and Mahler (with a couple of encores by Mussorgsky and Williams) was enormous for the young artists, who rehearsed only four days in residence at the magical Angsana Laguna Phuket Resort, which also graciously hosted the performance.

As a parent organisation, Siam Sinfonietta's principal conductor Trisdee Na Patalung competently stepped to the podium. Those first four notes (an orchestra conductor's joy and nightmare) brilliantly began our evening's musical journey. Maestro Trisdee's tempi in movement one were spot on, moving the work forward with gusto and passion. This same passion from the podium allowed the players many opportunities to communicate the piece to the audience. As movement two came into play, again Trisdee navigated from pastorale to march and back with steely focus and delight for the audience.

Particularly notable in movement three was the underlying motion in the lower strings, giving us a bit of gentle turbulence and even more excitement.

When the final chord sounded, the audience jumped to their feet and let the orchestra know how much they loved the experience.

After the intermission, the stage for Mahler's Symphony No.4 was set, and Maestro Somtow gave a bit of an introduction to the piece. He said: "The second movement is actually like a dead person going to get a coffee," which is a brilliant explanation. It is a childlike sounding piece, but that sound is deceptive due to the multiple layers and textures that Mahler asks not only of the players but also for us to synthesise.

From the starting downbeat and throughout this work, the orchestra gave mature sounds, absolutely following Somtow's well-seasoned baton and beautifully communicative style -- not missing even one cue. In listening to movement two, Mahler -- and the Asian Sinfonietta -- gives us a feeling of a dark pastorale that has many secrets and hiding places, but as this movement closes out, that same darkness goes back into hiding, allowing in the light on the way to movement three which is long, slow and very difficult -- these artists would make Mahler proud if he had been in the audience. There are so many standout soloists -- oboe, horn, and trumpet to name a few -- that Mahler calls upon to create this tapestry of sound and again, Somtow's orchestra provided everything I needed to understand and feel this musical portrait. A portrait that demands 100% concentration and commitment from the orchestra. Movement four was a treat, as the lovely soprano Nadlada Thamtanakom navigated this famous music beautifully with every word and sound -- another treat for us all.

After thunderous applause and two standing ovations, the orchestra quickly played Kiev's Gate by Mussorgsky and the Star Wars theme by John Williams. I must compliment these professionals in training, who absolutely rose to this momentous occasion.

I no longer see Phuket as home to partying 20-somethings, but now as a destination for young and exciting classical musicians -- all being catapulted into the world's finest orchestras and concert halls under the mentorship of world-renowned Maestro Somtow Sucharitkul and the Siam Sinfonietta based in Bangkok.

As the evening was ending, I asked Matthew Barclay why he was supporting this new symphony, and he meaningfully replied: "I'm here tonight because I love culture -- I love the arts, and it is so wonderful for Phuket to have a symphony. It's great to get out and meet people with similar interests while we all support something that is this unique and new to the island."

Asian Sinfonietta, Maestri Trisdee and Somtow, Angsana Laguna Phuket Resort and Phuket City, you have much to be proud of, because April 19 will be remembered for adding classical music to your extraordinary landscape and providing Thailand's only training programme for the most gifted young Asian classical artists.

Andrew Eisenmann is a former opera singer, freelance choral conductor and enthusiastic global arts follower.

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