Famed Thai-American composer Somtow Sucharitkul lends his support to help the Siam Sinfonietta youth orchestra perform two prestigious US concerts
If there’s one prodigious musical artiste who carries the weight of Thailand’s musical heritage on his shoulders, it’s Somtow Sucharitkul, easily the country’s most renowned and recognized musical genius. The irony, however, is that he’s also an American citizen, who won fame as a horror and science fiction-writer in the US and then moved back to Thailand—the country of his birth—in 2001. After that, the musical scene in the Kingdom has never been the same. Somtow started Opera Siam, the first internationa
l opera company in Bangkok, and to quote the UK publication Opera Magazine: “In just five years, he made Bangkok the artistic hub of SE Asia.”
This brilliant composer created some amazing operas with Thai themes, including Madana, Mae Naak, Ayodhya, and The Silent Prince. He is currently involved with a phenomenal 10-opera series called Dasjati – The Ten Lives of the Buddha. When completed, it will be the biggest production of its kind in opera history.
Apart from his own prodigious musical outputs, Somtow is noted for discovering and developing musical talents of the future, including the young and brilliant musical conductor and composer Trisdee na Patalung. He’s also been instrumental in the formation of the Siam Philharmonic, the Siam Sinfonietta Orchestra, the Siam Opera Choir, and the Calliope Chamber Choir.
The Siam Sinfonietta has been in the news as of late, as they have been invited to perform at the world-famous Carnegie Hall in New York City on April 24th of this year. This youth orchestra was founded by Somtow five years back, and today it is one of the most acclaimed youth orchestras in the world, having won awards at the top music festivals in Austria and Germany, and having performed in top international music halls including The Konzerthaus, Musikverein, and Disney Hall.
The Siam Sinfonietta has taken part in the well-known ‘Sounds of Spring International Music Festival’ at Carnegie Hall twice before—and won the Gold Award both times—but this year they have been invited not to partake in the Festival, but to be a “Showcase Orchestra”. And while this is an amazing honour and privilege, Somtow confessed that it was not easy to send a 60-member youth orchestra to the US without big funding behind the project. For this reason, various fundraising concerts were held in the city, in order to raise money for the tour, including an epic ‘Star Wars’ concert, with music from all the nine parts of the famed film-series.
“Help get Siam Sinfonietta to Carnegie Hall” read the unabashed headlines on the flyers that advertised the concert. Somtow admits he was not ashamed to ask for funds for this worthy cause. After all, he has “discovered” so many young musical talents, coached them for several years without charging any fees, and groomed them to perform at international levels.
“We have always depended on public and private sponsors,” he says simply. He also noted that he was waiting to hear from the Ministry of Culture regarding the
Carnegie Hall trip. The maestro, known for down-to-earth honesty, added frankly, “We only need 5 million baht more, which one good person can donate. But the bigger we get abroad, the more difficult it gets at home.”
At a recent Bangkok press conference, held to announce the US concert, Somtow was accompanied by Daniel Draganov, Director of the well-known Deutsche Opera Chamber Orchestra, who had witnessed the Siam Sinfonietta wining top awards at the famed Bayreuth Festival in Germany. He raved about their “fantastic talent”, and said that Thailand should be proud of them. Youngsters Chot Buasuwan and Kornchanok Treevittayanuruk, who were present, said they were proud to be part of the Siam Sinfonietta Orchestra, and to have performed in top international venues.
“It was awesome, and we can’t wait to perform there again,” exclaimed the youngsters, who have been training with Somtow for more than ten years. They said that what they enjoyed most about working with the maestro was his teaching technique. “He shows us how to play, but then leaves it us to find our own way of playing it. There are no restrictions of the right and the wrong way!”
Agreeing with them was conductor Trisdee na Patalung—himself praised by the Italian media as “One of the world’s top ten conductors under 30 to watch”—who gave full credit to Somtow for bringing out the best in him as well. “He’s my mentor,” he stated simply. Trisdee will be conducting the Siam Sinfonietta Orchestra at their Carnegie Hall concert, just like he did for their earlier two concerts at the same venue. “It’s every musician’s dream to play there!” he gushed, adding that he could not wait to perform there again.
The musical numbers that the Siam Sinfonietta perform include those of top Western composers, but Somtow went on to explain that the forthcoming US tour of this youth orchestra will be part of the 48 Forever project, which both celebrates the music of HM King Bhumibol Adulyadej and presents it in the context of world composers. The maestro went on to say that this was especially important because of the recent discovery at the Smithsonian Museum of some musical compositions which were said to have been created by the late King Rama IX. This has not been fully made public as of yet, but that will probably be done at a special concert performance by the Siam Sinfonietta at the Reagan Amphitheatre, in Washington DC, on April 26th (organized by the Smithsonian Museum).
Giving more details, Somtow stated that two boxes of documents, including some music manuscripts connected to HM King Rama IX’s compositions of the 1950s, had been found by Dr. Paul Taylor in the Library of Congress of the Smithsonian Museum. They contain original typescripts of the lyrics, and alternative rhythms and harmonies. A lot of paperwork has gone back and forth, including exchanges with Thai Princess HRH Maha Chakri Sirindhorn, in an attempt to confirm the authenticity of these musical transcripts (a verification that is still in process). Interestingly, it all happened because Serge Rips, an American diplomat and military official based in Asia, had been asked to take care of processing HM Thai King Rama IX’s USA copyright paperwork, all of which was on file at the US Library of Congress.
Somtow is sure that the presence of these newly discovered musical compositions of the late great King Rama IX will give a huge boost to Thailand’s musical heritage abroad. From that point of view, the maestro is indeed proud that the Siam Sinfonietta’s upcoming performances in New York and Washington will contribute to this larger aim.
By Lekha Shankar