Bringing classical music to the masses
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Bringing classical music to the masses

Rather than a concert hall, the Siam Sinfonietta surprised mall and park visitors with old melodies and film scores

Bringing classical music to the masses
The Siam Sinfonietta plays music from Star Wars in Nakhon Ratchasima, with a surprise visit from Darth Vader who demanded to conduct the Imperial March himself. (Photo: Siam Sinfonietta)

In last year's award-winning film Tár, Cate Blanchett is an orchestral conductor at the peak of her fame, celebrated worldwide and powerful within the industry. But a scandal brings her downfall, and a final scene shows her exiled to a (non-specified) Southeast Asian country, recording video game background music with a local orchestra.

"How have the mighty fallen!" we are meant to think. But the irony, unintended in the film, is that by doing so, her performances would very likely be heard by many more people than those who listened to her classical music performances in concert halls or recordings. And a second irony is this: the unnamed orchestra Tár conducts in the Southeast Asian country is in real life the Bangkok youth orchestra, the Siam Sinfonietta, who have done so much to promote classical music in Bangkok, and abroad, winning awards and acclaim in Europe and the US. It was, incidentally, touching to see every single member of the Sinfonietta named in the credits at the end of the film.

When commentators discuss what they claim is the slow disappearance and death of "classical music", they fail to note that such music, which is tonal and diatonic for orchestra, survives healthily in everyday life. For example, in most pop music, in commercials on TV, in musicals and in films, it is omnipresent. In fact, the greatest composers of much of the 20th and 21st centuries have been film music composers.

This started with the mass emigration in the 1930s of talented, often Jewish, composers from Europe to the United States, where many of them found good employment in Hollywood. Erich Korngold, and Franz Waxman are typical examples. More recently John Williams, Ennio Morricone, Max Richter, Nino Rota, John Barry, Hans Zimmer, Max Steiner and Dimitri Tiomkin are just a few examples of composers whose music would instantly be recognised by a very large number of people who wouldn't necessarily know these names. Far from dying, the classical music genre has adapted to the modern age, and still remains vastly popular.

There is still, of course, an audience for the historical composers such as Bach, Mozart and Beethoven. But those who attend classical music concerts are much smaller in number than those who go to the cinema, watch films on their TVs and play video games.

An illustration of these facts can be seen in two recent events held on successive weekends. The first was on March 17 when shoppers in the vast complex that is The Mall, Korat, stopped to stare and listen. As they emerged on the 3rd floor from lifts and escalators they heard music, though it wasn't the usual ubiquitous bland elevator type, but orchestral music being played live right there by an orchestra.

The Siam Sinfonietta, founded, trained and conducted by maestro Somtow Sucharitkul, had come to Korat to participate in the SounderKorat Music Fest 2024. Later, they were one of the groups appearing in that evening in the open air in the old city centre by the statue of local heroine, Lady Mo. At both concerts, the Sinfonietta played Tchaikovsky's sweepingly romantic Romeo And Juliet (Fantasy Overture), which tells the tragic tale of young lovers. It is a piece full of swiftly changing emotions, glorious big tunes, and many exciting fortissimo passages with the full orchestra blasting out and the brass and percussion sections particularly prominent.

The Siam Sinfonietta performed music from Star Wars in Nakhon Ratchasima, with a surprise visit from Darth Vader who demanded to conduct the Imperial March himself.

At The Mall, some shoppers paused for a few minutes, others sat down for the whole concert, while many stood, transfixed by the power of music. After the Tchaikovsky came a real crowd pleaser, a medley of pieces from John Williams' wonderful score for Star Wars. A group of probably 12-year-old schoolboys, who had no doubt been told to attend, sat in front of me in their khaki shorts and white shirts. As Tchaikovsky's music poured out in front of them, they paid no attention, but laughed, giggled, hit each other, swapped seats, looked at their phones and chatted. But when the Star Wars music started they were riveted. "We know this," they said, and sat back, still, thoroughly enjoying the music.

For others who stayed for the whole concert, there were obvious parallels between the two masterpieces -- both involving swift changes of tempo and mood and dynamics, both with powerful tutti sections with the whole orchestra at full blast, and both with highly romantic melodic themes.

Some very talented classical music students from the Nakhon Ratchasima Dramatic Arts College joined the Siam Sinfonietta players, and were able to play for the first time with a full orchestra. The Sinfonietta, plus their Korat guests, played extraordinarily well. Woodwind, brass and percussion were very prominent. The violins, and especially the two viola players, two cellists and two double bassists, managed to mask their small numbers and my only reservation was how much more could be achieved with double or triple these numbers of string players!

The venture was interesting, for it brought orchestral music to Korat (as the Sinfonietta has done in the past). Korat does not have its own orchestra, though it has the very well-regarded Wind Band. And the concerts made the music available to anyone. Not in a concert hall, for which tickets would have to be bought, but free, in public, in the mall and in the park -- stay as long as you want, come and go, bring your kids, eat, chat and enjoy.

The next weekend I was at a very different classical music event, at Ben's Theater in Jomtien. Here, retired Dutch journalist and photographer Bernhard Hansen has been arranging musical events in the adapted front room of his house, which he has transformed into a mini-theatre with a stage, grand piano and seating for about 40 people.

The formula is well established: drinks beforehand and during the interval, informal dress, but no shorts or sandals. And the audience is largely expat European. The recitals usually consist of a small number of singers, accompanied by piano, or a small chamber music group, as happened last Saturday. Hansen formed a particularly close connection with the College of Music at Mahidol University early on, from where many of the young and talented musicians who have performed at Ben's Theater come from.

The recital was by a young trio consisting of Pattapol Jirasuttisarn on violin, Kunut Chaloempornpong on cello and Anant Changwaiwit on piano, and they played Mendelssohn's Piano Trio No.1 In D Minor, Op 49, and Dvořák's Piano Trio No.4 In E Minor, Opus 90, "Dumky". Pattapol and Anant are graduates of Mahidol University's College of Music, and Kunut of Rangsit University's Conservatory of Music, as well as being a former member of the Siam Sinfonietta. All three now have successful careers, playing in orchestras around the world.

The Mendelssohn, despite the foreboding key of D minor (the key of Don Giovanni), is a sunny work with delightful themes and a rippling and virtuosic piano part, brilliantly played by Anant, a regular at Ben's. The second movement is an achingly beautiful andante, in contrast to the other three movements which are full of vivacious and passionate themes. Dvorak's Dumky is something of a curiosity.

It breaks with the conventions of the time, which required that the musical form which symphonies, concertos and chamber music characteristically took was of three or four movements, of which one, usually the second (as in the Mendelssohn) is a slow Andante in contrast to the faster outer movements. The Dumky has six movements, all of which begin in slow, rather Slavic melancholy and maestoso (majestic) fashion, but then suddenly change to a rapid, dance-like, folksier idiom. The trio managed these sudden transitions very well. The opening is played by the cello, and Kunut's work reminded me of how wonderful a composer Dvořák was for this instrument -- compare, for example, his celebrated cello concerto.

The trio's performances were met with great acclaim by the audience, and they were treated to an encore. It was the ravishingly beautiful Cinema Paradiso love theme, by Ennio Morricone's son Andrea, a piece which Mendelssohn himself would have been pleased to have written, and, as film music, rather proved my point.

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