RBSO plays Holst for Queen Suthida
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RBSO plays Holst for Queen Suthida

Conductor Vanich Potavanich.
Conductor Vanich Potavanich.

In honour of birthday celebrations of Her Majesty Queen Suthida Bajrasudhabimalalakshana, and in collaboration with the Tourism Authority of Thailand, Ministry of Culture and B.Grimm, the Royal Bangkok Symphony Orchestra (RBSO) delivered another high-spirited performance at the Thailand Cultural Centre recently. Directed by Resident Conductor Vanich Potavanich, the first item on the programme could hardly have been any more suitable as a tribute to the universal majesty of royalty.

Composed in 1901 at the very twilight of the Victorian era, Sir Edward Elgar's originally purely orchestral Pomp & Circumstance No.1 In D Major borrows its title from a line in Shakespeare's play Othello, giving serious gravitas to the overtones of patriotic pride, but it wasn't until the following year that the legendary lyrics "Land of hope and glory…" were added for the Coronation of King Edward VII, ushering in a new century and era.

It was heartwarming to hear the RBSO render this endlessly performed earworm with all the gusto, passion and technical excellence that music fans associate with "The Last Night Of The Proms" in London's Royal Albert Hall. An enlarged orchestra for this concert certainly added to the overpowering wash of late-Romantic opulence, with guest musicians from the Bangkok Metropolitan Orchestra and Mahidol University continuing a recent initiative to promote collaboration between classical music organisations here.

In a marked change of pace, Mozart's Clarinet Concerto In A Major was then performed by American supremo Andrew Simon, principal of the renowned Hong Kong Philharmonic since 1988. The experienced soloist once played this concerto at very short notice on the original period instrument for which it was intended, the basset horn, but most performances today are, of course, on the modern clarinet.

Clarinet soloist Andrew Simon.

Even so, this is one of those concerti which is particularly associated with the original dedicatee, Mozart's Salzburg colleague Anton Stadler, who obviously had an excelsior technique for his time. It is as if the spirit of Stadler, as well as Mozart himself, is evoked when we hear this piece. Written at the very end of his life, Köchel 622 is also noteworthy for its imposing duration, requiring considerable stamina and powers of concentration from the musicians.

A reduced classical-sized RBSO did very well to keep focused throughout, with crisp, clean and articulate playing, and only one brief discrepancy of ensemble at the exacting recapitulation of the first movement Allegro.

The famed slow movement Adagio -- considered to be Mozart's "swan song" -- was full of the requisite poignancy throughout, with the following Rondo Allegro positively bubbling with zestful charm. Simon's quicksilver scales and arpeggiations were faultless in this highly polished rendition, followed by Astor Piazzollas's Etude No.3 as an encore -- quite dazzling!

Each RBSO season, there tends to be at least one standout concert in terms of programming which grabs the attention of Bangkok's musical community, and here it was Gustav Holst's The Planets, which had such a galvanising effect. A particularly eye-catching poster based on Leonardo da Vinci's Vitruvian Man was a clever piece of marketing that certainly helped attract an above-average classical concert audience to the city's premiere venue.

Mars, The Bringer Of War began with that hypnotising rhythmic clatter of col legno strings in tight rhythmic unison before one of the mightiest eruptions of volume and brutal orchestration ever conceived. A trumpeter himself, Vanich was in his element here as the huge brass section roared through this iconic movement, then followed by its opposite counterpart, a serenely delivered Venus, The Bringer Of Peace, featuring assured solos by ever reliable principal horn Supreeti Ansvananda and principal cellist Apichai Leamthong.

Mercury, The Winged Messenger, then flew by in a flash of dashing orchestral colour featuring two harps before the centrepiece of the suite -- Jupiter, The Bringer Of Jollity. Much like the Elgar which opened the concert, the central "big tune" is likewise anthemic in its joyful, global appeal, whilst Saturn, The Bringer Of Old Age, reminds us all of our mortality. The alternation here between outbursts of frustrated rage on the one hand and hushed, dignified acceptance of our inevitable fate on the other was captured superbly.

Indeed, the whole seven-movement cycle of The Planets revolves around the juxtaposition of extreme contrasts, with the penultimate Uranus, The Magician unleashing a diabolical brew of decibel-infused energy, yet finally yielding to the distant-sounding tranquillity and calm of Neptune, The Mystic. Although both rendered on electric keyboards, here the celesta part played by Phanuphong Thongkham and the voiceless "disembodied" female choir cleverly emulated by Trisdee Na Patalung fully achieved Holst's intended effect of eternal wonder. Every soul in the Thailand Cultural Centre was truly transfixed in the concluding silence -- an utterly spellbinding experience.

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