A centennial celebration
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A centennial celebration

RBSO marks 100 years of Respighi's Pines Of Rome

A centennial celebration

Backed by generous support from the Tourism Authority of Thailand and B.Grimm, the Royal Bangkok Symphony Orchestra added to its impressive 2024 season of concerts at the Thailand Cultural Centre on May 10, with the regular RBSO bolstered by extra guest musicians from the Bangkok Metropolitan Orchestra and Mahidol College of Music for a programme of Ottorino Respighi's Pines Of Rome.

Marking the 100th anniversary of this true orchestral warhorse, resident conductor Vanich Potavanich displayed his abundant charisma and interpretative skills on the podium.

The audience included a notable contingent of the professorial oboe community in Bangkok (and oboe fans/students in general), as Korean soloist Yeon-Hee Kwak took to the stage to perform one of her instrument's most important works -- Oboe Concerto In D Major by Richard Strauss, composed at the end of his incredibly long, illustrious career in 1945.

Proceedings began, however, with rousing Thai music, the Royal Celebration Overture by Prof Narongrit Dhamabutra. Written in 2020 to celebrate the birthday of King Rama X, it was presented here as part of year-long celebrations for HM the King's sixth cycle birthday on July 28.

Oboe soloist Yeon-Hee Kwak.

A hugely respected musical figure at home and internationally, Narongrit became a National Artist of Thailand in 2021, having enjoyed a long, fruitful association as a resident composer for the RBSO for many decades. He currently serves as head of composition at the Faculty of Fine and Applied Arts, Chulalongkorn University.

His attractive, immediately accessible style is widely praised as being instantly recognisable -- invariably exciting, abundantly tuneful and immensely colourful -- often utilising a whole battery of tuned percussion to exotic tonal effect. As far back as 1996, his Chakri Symphony was dubbed a "Champagne piece" for the orchestra such is the vitality of expression which positively jumps off the pages of his scores, and in many ways this Royal Celebration Overture conveys similar associations befitting the prestigious festivities.

Born in 1969, Yeon-Hee Kwak has been at the forefront of the global oboe-playing elite since receiving the highly coveted German ECHO Klassik record award twice -- identified in 2001 as "Best Up-and-Coming Musician of the Year" and in 2007 as "Best Instrumentalist of the Year". She is renowned for her truly exceptional technique and musical personality, both demonstrated brilliantly in her interpretation of Oboe Concerto In D Major. Quite a lengthy work at around 25 minutes, it is clearly a test of stamina and memory for one thing, coupled with the challenge of filling the vast TCC auditorium acoustically.

Scored for a small orchestra so as not to overwhelm the soloist, and with the score containing shades of the neo-classical aesthetic (even occasionally reminiscent of Stravinsky's playful explorations), this is absolutely not the Strauss of the gargantuan tone poems of his youth -- although there are delicious echoes of these as his personal late-Romantic period infused harmonic palette is inevitably very much in presence. Despite not being one of the louder instruments, the oboe's benefit is its clear, piercing tone; thus, projecting to the back of the TCC was not a major issue for Kwak.

Conductor Vanich Potavanich.

An educationalist as well as a performer, her broad experience shone through as a good dynamic balance was always in evidence between herself and the RBSO. Since 2019, she has been a lecturer at Seoul National University and a Jury Member at the 65th International Oboe Competition Genève and the 66th International Oboe Competition in Prague, all contributing to her well-rounded musical personality.

Respighi's iconic Pines Of Rome is of that species of audience favourite which, as it were, "takes the roof off" at its almighty climax, and it was impossible not to observe, and indeed share in and thoroughly enjoy, the heightened level of excitement that was generated at the exalted conclusion of this superlative rendition. Vanich, the conductor, is at his best in large-scale pieces of unfolding structure such as this, and he certainly had the measure of the narrative thread through the four connected movements of this evocative tone poem.

Reflecting a cyclical journey around the Eternal City and through time itself, The Pines Of The Villa Borghese / Pines Near A Catacomb / The Pines Of The Janiculum / The Pines Of The Appian Way are designed to lead step by step to the overwhelming, jubilant final denouement. Cor Anglais player Kijjarin Pongkapanakrai excelled himself in two lovely solos, as did Pitipong Pookaew in a mesmerisingly moving off-stage trumpet call, whilst the majestic antiphonal effect of guest brass players at the back of the auditorium stalls was absolutely thrilling.

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