Thursday, February 26, 2009

For a change, the POST says something nice


An all but perfect evening of music at the Thailand Science Museum
Published: 25/02/2009 at 12:00 AM
Newspaper section: Outlook

The Bangkok Opera recently presented the "Handel Opera Gala: Celebrating 250 Years" at both the Thailand Cultural Centre on Thursday night and the Thailand Science Park on Friday night last week. Both drew crowds - and rightly so.

The house where Handel lived.

The superb Siam Philharmonic Orchestra, led by Pairoj Ongkasing, did all the heavy lifting while heavyweights waited in the wings. On hand to help were the Orpheus Choir of Bangkok and the Tamnak Prathom Harp Centre, which brought a beautiful harpist and a marvellous lady to play it. All this under the direction of Somtow Sucharitkul, with help from "Thailand's wunderkind" Trisdee na Patalung.

Handel was born on February 23, 1685 - 250 years ago - the same year as J.S. Bach and Domenico Scarlatti.

Somtow played the National Anthem on the double keyboard harpsichord, showing that it is an instrument of great versatility and not to be sniffed at. A moment of silence was then held to recall HRH Princess Galyani Vadhana (1923 to 2008) and her lasting contributions to the classical music scene in Thailand.

Somtow began the evening's festivities by making the claim that Handel was perhaps the greatest composer of them all. It was hard to argue when the music began to play. Handel, Somtow said, was the "master of the hook" - we might call it a riff. But it "hooked" you and pulled you in. Now as to whether Handel was the greatest composer of them all, some of us would nominate Chopin while others would go in the direction of Mozart. But Handel lived a long, full life, whereas Chopin and Mozart were dead before they hit 40. Beethoven must also be considered. While we could argue endless inches about who was the best composer, it was clear on that Friday evening at the Thailand Science Park - a very nice venue, by the way - Handel was the boss.

Handel is the epitome of Baroque. Think of Cher, Cyndi Lauper, Pink, Slipknot, Marilyn Manson. Excess, overdoing it - that's Baroque, our style. But it was the fashion at the time when Handel was born in Germany and he mastered it very well. He found his way to Italy after his father died, having refused to follow his father's orders to become a lawyer. Handel had always been fascinated by music and was not to be dissuaded. In 1710 he became Kapellmeister to George, Elector of Hanover, soon to be King George I of Great Britain. He settled there permanently in 1712, receiving a yearly sum of 200 from Queen Anne.

The rest, as they say, is history.

Somtow receives flowers while Trisdee na Patalung stands behind him.

That history was brought to life by talents like Asia's beloved operatic diva Nancy Yuen and her counterpart Derek Kwan, plus Sushleilagh Angpiroj, Pichaya Kemesingki, the endearing Potprecha Cholvijarn, who looked too young to legally drink, Lora Lund and Ryan Johnston.

Proceedings began with Solomon: Entrance of the Queen of Sheba. Trisdee played along on the harpsichord while simultaneously directing. The first solo of the evening was Derek Kwan, with Eun folle, e un vile affetto from Alcina. Kwan had a nice stage presence and the band really worked hard to make him shine. Sometimes too hard - at times he got a bit drowned out by the wall of sound washing over him.

Next was Potprecha Cholvijarn, who had the audience eating out of his hands. A tenor, Potprecha can hit high notes like you wouldn't believe. And he never gets overwhelmed by the band. He looked perfectly at ease up there and there's no doubt where this young man's future lies.

Then it was Let the bright Seraphim from Samson with soloist Zion Daoratanahong. She was confident, capable and had a great stage presence and beautiful smile. She duetted with a special horn player.

Ryan Johnston sang next, Si rea o ceppi from Berenice, Regina d'Egotto . Johnston had a good presence, was strong, didn't get lost or overwhelmed by the orchestra and handled his trills with aplomb. He was one of the few who sang without music in front of him.

We were treated then to another helping of Potprecha, who sang Onbra mai fu from Serse. If there was any doubt about his abilities, they were quickly put to rest. He had all the high notes in this song and never flinched. His pacing was perfect.

Those were the principles in the first half. Trisdee played the recorder at one point, and Pichaya Kemasingki sang two closing numbers. A bass of powerful proportions, he had to compete with a special horn - and didn't come off any worse for wear.

Nancy Yuen.

Nancy Yuen ended the first half with the heartfelt I Know That My Redeemer Liveth. She made it seem effortless. The chorus gathered at the end for a rousing finish.

The second half was a series of six songs take from the opera Giulio Cesare. The principals alternated with Nancy Yuen. And it ended with a rousing Hallelujah Chorus with the audience singing along. All went as planned and we got to hear Yuen sing V'Adoro pupille, Piangero and Da tempeste.

It's hard to attend these events and not marvel at how Thai people are taking to Western classical music, which is a decidedly acquired taste. But one is also saddened - that the government doesn't do more to help the arts and the artists, that there isn't more coverage of such events in our newspapers, that the truly talented are few and far between. Yet it is also a time of excitement, of new growth, new beginnings. The momentum is building. And every event like this Handel Gala builds on that momentum.

Talk after the show was about the venue - The Thailand Science Museum. I have it on good authority that shows may alternate between the Thailand Cultural Centre and the Thailand Science Museum, which is among a cluster of buildings including Nectec and NSTDA. It is certainly more convenient for those of us who live in the suburbs and the facilities seemed most congenial. I hope this plan becomes a reality.

As for the show, the sound quality was magnificent, the band was far more than capable, the harp added delightful touches here and there and the chorus and the principals really gave it their own. It was an all but perfect evening and the audience rewarded the players with a standing ovation.

Monday, February 23, 2009

A snippet from the Handel Gala

Here's a bit of last week's show.

Saturday, February 21, 2009

Getting a Handel on Things

I saw Nick Wilgus's charming pic of Nancy Yuen from our Handel gala on Facebook and didn't think he'd mind if I stole it, especially since I'm crediting him here....

I'm very excited to have discovered the most charming and wonderful concert venue at the Thailand Science Park. The only problem is that it's an hour's drive from Bangkok. Of course for an Angeleno such as myself this shouldn't really mean anything, and yet in Bangkok one measures such things completely differently ...

The Handel Gala! Well, the first night, the orchestra's dinner was contaminated and they all had upset stomachs during the concert. Still, the audience had a good time and the Hallelujah Chorus singalong was pretty amusing. Once at the TSP for the second performance, stomachs had settled (delicious food was catered) but out there, the audience was a little different ... they didn't sing along as raucously, except for some students (mostly Indian, I think) who were in the top row, conducting along as well as singing. Trisdee became disgruntled because the audience didn't realize that the person at the harpsichord was in fact conducting ... well, conducting from the harpsichord is rather a new concept for the exurbs of Bangkok ... considering there's only one working double manual harpsichord in the whole country....

It was a pity I missed being able to watch my own show, Somtow's Theatre of Horror, because I was directing some concert, but I guess that is the catch when you have two careers (and the income of none).

Wednesday, February 18, 2009

How to Handel a Diva

Tomorrow's the big day ... a concert with twenty sparkling Handel gems, celebrating the 250th anniversary of his death. We've got several of the greatest moments from Giulio Cesare, bits of Samson, Athalia, Berenice, Alcina, Solomon, and even Messiah. We've got singers flying in (using up the last scraps of our barter allowance from our sponsor airline) a chorus, two conductors, and a new venue .... so far almost everything that can go wrong has, but the music is so grateful to play that there's a very forgiving atmosphere.

The concert is in less than 22 hours and we're wildly correcting the parts ... the great countertenor Michael Chance once told me that my house is like Handel's house must have been in the 18th century ... opera as a cottage industry ...

The much-loved Nancy Yuen flew in last night and, a 1 am, awoke me from my deathbed to tell me she needed to move hotels because she was being attacked by insects ... with other people this might have been a mere diva attack, but Trisdee went and took photographs of all the different species crawling around the bed ... she was hustled into a Novotel in the dead of night....

The first rehearsal was chaos from which emerged from which there emerged a vaulting, cosmic sense of order – like Handel's music itself, which seems at times to be put together from nothing yetoverwhelmingly engages one's sense of awe. The musicians love to play Handel and don't feel imposed upon when overtime sometimes sets in.

Today there is a four hour rehearsal before the concert, which lead me to suspect that there will be confusion in the concert itself ... we'll see!

Friday, February 13, 2009

Domestic Bliss

This is how it is for me:

I'm sitting here in my home office belaboredly trying to piece together a proposal to beg people for money for the opera. Below me, from two different rooms in the house, comes the sound of music. But ah. what music! Do you remember Caliban's speech in The Tempest about the music on the magic island? Sometimes a thousand twanging instruments will hum about mine ears....

So. From one chamber beneath comes the sound of Trisdee energetically practising the pi nai, a traditional Thai instrument whose sound is like the mating call of a flock of geese. Elsewhere, Jay is playing a succession of arpeggios on the violin with the relentless energy of a stuck Phillip Glass record. Somewhere just outside my office door, the two sounds blend -- if you can call it that -- into what can only be described as a symphony of horror (and you will recall that this was the subtitle of the 1922 film Nosferatu.

No wonder I'm insane.

Saturday, February 7, 2009

Theatre of Horror - podcast coming soon!

It finally appeared on that odd satellite TV station known as P5 ... one that seems mostly to be selling health products or playing country 'n' eastern music videos. So for those of you who speak Thai, this is an amusing intro to my TV show about various monsters and demons of the world ... which appears here every Friday night at 10 pm. They don't have the kinks out of the show yet, and they really have to fix their one wireless mike, but it seems to me that it may settle down into a very amusing weekly jaunt. I've just finished filming episodes 3 and 4 which are about the history of Dracula.

Now, I will be podcasting the complete (hour long) show from one of my websites, www.SPTVCentral com, the only web TV channel devoted entirely to the Terrifying Thai, each week, putting it online a few days after it first airs and using the vast free space on youtube to store it rather than investing in any space of my own. If you check this site in a while, you will be able to watch all of episode one.

Now, one of the more entertaining aspects of this show is that there is no script. They give me my mark, and then I just start rambling about the monster of the week, dredging up all the info from the rat's nest that is my brain. They actually expect me to be a walking encyclopedia....

This is all very well when I can really flow, for instance if I'm talking about vampires, but then there's also a language problem because I have never really done this in Thai before. I suppose it could be worse.....