AMITIAE - Friday 26 July 2013

Somtow's Wall of Sound: Mahler 8 - Thailand Cultural Center, 24 July 2013

apple and chopsticks


By Graham K. Rogers


The last few years have seen a growth in areas of Western cultural appreciation in Thailand. While drama still has a way to go, pictorial Art and Music now excel. Thai musical performances in a wide range of styles, like Rock and Jazz are worth taking time to seek out: there are many talented young musicians.

In the field of classical music, the advances here have been every bit as great, even if there is not the widespread adulation that may follow success. The main forces behind the new recognition of classical music here seem to be centered on Mahidol University's music programs and on the artistic dynamo, Somtow Sucharikul, known by some as S. P. Somtow.

In the United States he was well-known for science fiction writing, but in Thailand, his focus has been mainly musical. His compositions include symphonies, opera, and ballet. He has also developed the earlier Siam Sinfonietta into a major orchestra: The Siam Philharmonic. The performances of this mainly young group of musicians, are not to be missed. The recent rendition of Mahler's Symphony Number 8 - The Symphony of a Thousand - was a tour de force.

One of the features of a Somtow event is that he walks round chatting to those he knows. Then with an unusual informality, just before the performance, addresses the audience from the front of the stage. One of the points he made this time was that although the 8th Symphony was not actually the largest such work, it is the only one that is regularly performed. This was also part of a Mahler cycle that Somtow is producing to fulfill his promise to the Late Princess Galyani. It is hoped to perform the final work, Mahler 2 - The Resurrection Symphony - next year.

This reaching out to the audience makes the atmosphere less starchy than at other such events. Nonetheless, the performers dress up for the occasion, and this is one of the rare occasions I wear a suit and tie to recognise their efforts.

The four movements of what is really a choral work, rather than a true symphony, were split into two parts, with a 3-minute break for the soloists to grab some water. Thematically, the two sections were set apart with the first using a 9th Century Hymn and the second part of the closing scene of Goethe's Faust.

As I was less familiar with this Mahler work, I downloaded an old recording from iTunes of the New York Philharmonic Orchestra, conducted by Leopold Stokoswsky. As good as that was, and I had listened to it several times, it had not really prepared me for Somtow's great wall of sound.

An indication of the changing nature of audiences was the huge number of smartphones and iPads in evidence. Pictures were taken of an empty stage, of patrons in their seats and anything else that moved. Or didn't. Remembering an earlier event at which one iPhone alarm had sounded during the performance, mine was turned off before I went into the auditorium.

The previous performance that I had attended at the Thailand Cultural Center - The Silent Prince - had mercifully been free of such crass interruptions. We were not so lucky this time: for some taking photographs during an event, despite requests not to, is a compulsion. As they may not know how to turn on Airplane Mode, I heard the tell-tale sounds of LINE and What's App a couple of times. This shows a selfish disrespect to the performers and to the audience.

The VIP seats (I paid for mine) were a bit cramped and I was dreading the arrival of the person or group in the reserved seats just in front of me. They were on time and well-behaved. I do not know who the main man was but he was on stage at the end presenting the flowers.


There were seven chairs for the soloists, but eight were listed in the program. The reason became clear later. Some are (welcome) regulars here. The soloists were:

  • Nancy Yuen - Soprano
  • Grace Echauri - Mezzo Soprano
  • Ndlada Thamtanakom - Soprano
  • Yin Yue - Soprano
  • Emanuela Barazia - Mezzo Soprano
  • Jeffrey Spinger - Tenor
  • Phillip Joll - Baritone
  • Kittinant Chinsamran - Bass

It is encouraging to see the number of Thais in that list and Kittinant Chinsaram's voice was notable. All of the other soloists were superb, especially Grace Echauri and Nadlada Thamtanakom.

What sets this event apart is the huge choral accompaniment that is needed. It was encouraging to see how this was made up from a number of choirs, local and international, with the Czech boys almost passing through on their way to a contest.

  • BONIFANTES Boy Choir, Pardubice, Czech Republic - Artistic Leader and Founder: Jan Míšek
  • Chinese University of Hong kong Chorus - Music Director and Conductor: Leon Chu
  • Fairhaven Singers, Cambridge, England - Music Director: Ralph Woodward
  • Bangkok Musical Society Choir
  • Rangsit University Chamber Choir - Music Director: Masashi Kishimoto
  • Montfort Children's Choir, Chiang Mai - Music Director and Conductor: Supamit Prasobkiet

That these groups worked as one was a magnificent achievement. Credit must go of course to Somtow but also to the Chorus Master, Athalie de Koning, and to Associate Chorus Master Rick Muselaers. It cannot be easy to manage so many souls.

By the middle of the first section I did not quite have tears streaming down my face, but the eyes were certainly moistening up. Although the combined strings and brass sections produce a sound that is unmistakably Mahler, there were certain other ideas seeping through, such as Verdi's Requiem and to a lesser extent Beethoven's Choral Symphony (9th).

The sense (to me) after the break was a heavier mood and, with the words from Faust, a darker sense - sinister at times - percolated through. Then towards the end as the chorus gave full voice, the soloists clearly heard over the mass of voices, the music swelling to its climax, there was a brilliant few seconds with the eighth soilist in the rows above and behind the audience.

And still there was more. The last six minutes of the performance is available on video via Somtow's Facebook pages.

The applause was prolonged, loud and justified. The orchestra had just produced one of the most stunning performances that any Bangkok audience has been privileged to attend. String and horn sections of this young orchestra were magnificent, as were percussion/timpani and we must look forward to the next Mahler performance. The mature performances of these young musicians tells me there is much potential here: great performances still to be experienced.

In the meantime, I will be booking my tickets as soon as I can for Wagner's Siegfried which is to be put on later in the year; and I noticed that it is expected that Britten's War Requiem is to be produced sometime next year.

I look forward to an early release of a recording of the full performance of the Mahler 8 Symphony we experienced this week. The orchestra, the soloists, chorus members and above all Somtow are to be thanked for a unique experience.

Photograph of bouquet presentations

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Graham K. Rogers teaches at the Faculty of Engineering, Mahidol University in Thailand where he is also Assistant Dean. He wrote in the Bangkok Post, Database supplement on IT subjects. For the last seven years of Database he wrote a column on Apple and Macs.



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