Sunday, December 26, 2010

Somtow Encounters the Grinch

In almost half a century of giving performances in venues of every kind in most of the world's continents, I've never had quite as weird an experience as I did on Christmas Eve this year.

It all started a week or so earlier when Bruce Gaston, my fellow Silpathorn Kittikun Artist, called me and asked me if I'd send the Shounen-Thai quartet down to Phuket on Christmas Eve.  I didn't really want to do it because they were already signed up for Dr. Veena's TV special on Christmas Day in Bangkok, but Bruce was persuasive.  The event would be a glittering star-studded evening at the Amanpuri Resort.  The money would be respectable.  And this would by no means be an event demeaning to the Opera (we have a policy of not doing commercial functions, especially ones in which the audience are simultaneously eating or wandering around, because we work with real artists, not bar bands.  By the time the discussions were finished I had agreed to provide a 90 minute "Classical Christmas" programme with 2 opera singers, Trisdee on piano, myself, and the quartet as well.  In particular, we were asked to do Christmas music in a classical vein, so I spent a great deal of time obtaining arrangements for string quartet of popular Christmas songs.  My two singers were the best ones I could find in Thailand on short notice: Zion Daoratanahong, who recently was chosen to sing the special televised dedication song for the King's birthday, and Stefan Sanchez, who is staying on for a while in Thailand after his well-received performance in CARMEN.

It was a stroke of luck to have Trisdee in the group ... just back from conducting the RAI National Orchestra of Italy, and about to go off to conduct the Verdi Orchestra of Milan in the near future ... by far the best known Thai conductor internationally (Sorry, Mr. Bundit.)

So this gig, which we took on basically to help out Bruce Gaston, was a bit of nuisance, but we took it seriously, trying to fill the "Classical Christmas" agenda with a nicely constructed and varied programme.  Everything was thoroughly rehearsed before we left and we were assured that the Amanpuri, a well known hangout for millionaires, would have the whole thing smoothly and beautifully organized.

We arrived in Phuket around 3 pm and were driven to the Amanpuri.  On arrival, we were met by some kind of assistant F&B person and it became painfully obvious that all was not as we had been told.  "We will now send you off you check in to your hotel.  Be back by 6 for a sound check, and your show begins around 8:30 or 9.  You must play until 11:30."

I wasn't too suprised they were putting us up elsewhere, but rather irritated to discover that the place was an hour away.  From 4-6, with travel in both directions, that would have allowed precisely zero rest time, after which we were expected to be on call for almost six hours.  There was not even going to be a room provided for us to rest, and the concert was an open air one, next to the ocean.  I offered to check into the resort (at $852 a night) at my own expense; I was doing the gig as a favor, not to make money. so I didn't really care.  The F&B scoffed, behaving as though I were a presumptuous insect for daring to imagine that "the entertainment" might be accommodated with their great and powerful clients. That was when I started to get a bad feeling about this.

In the car, travelling to the hotel they had booked for us, we discussed our options.  It was clear right away that the Amanpuri had no clue who any of us were.  If it hadn't been for Bruce Gaston, I would have simply gone home.  I don't need this.

Stefan Sanchez then pointed out that, if he were not doing this gig as a favor to me, he would have already had a tantrum and refused to perform.   After all, it's been about two centuries since the time that renowned artists had to wear livery and expected to be treated like servants.  The Bangkok Opera, which is a pauper compared to the Amanpuri, never treats its artists in such a shabby manner.  When Zion was invited to perform at the King's birthday event in Sanamluang, she had a an earlier engagement the same night singing in one of my concerts ... and the ministry actually had her delivered to their concert in style, by motorcycle escort.  I have never given any performance in any hotel or resort where they did not provide a complimentary room (the Oriental gave me a huge suite and free run of room service including all the dinner guests I wanted.)

But it was not so much that the accommodation was insulting.  It was the idea that hard working artists who take their craft seriously and who had just flown in that afternoon would be fine to perform for twice the amount of time specified without having any rest after flying in and being bused from place to place for what would by then have amounted to three hours.

As we suspected, the hotel we were sent to was an incredible dump.  But by then we needed the rest and could ignore the fleas.  Calling the F&B person elicited no response, so I talked to Bruce and explained the situation.  I told him the artists were mutinying.  We had a beautiful 90 minute programme prepared, not a 150 minute one.  Whatever happened, we would be insisting on taking our rest now,  and still arrive in plenty of time to perform.  We also asked Bruce to tell the Amanpuri we wouldn't play unless they gave us the cheque upfront.  This is because Stefan, by far the most experienced among us with "hotel dealings", was having strange vibes about the whole thing.

Bruce called the F&B people and got them to agree to the upfront cheque and the time constraints.  So, on balance, we decided we would just not worry about the demeaning treatment and do the best we could, put on the finest "Classical Christmas" we were capable of, and then go home and try to forget about it.

We had been told that the "brilliant sound people" would have everything ready and a sound check wasn't even necessary, but on our arrival at the venue, we discovered that there were no music stands, no light by which the musicians could see the music, and the "piano" was an electronic device set at a height where Trisdee would have to stand to play it.  It was clear that these people had not the slightest clue about how to set up for classical music.  But okay, we sorted all that out, and after a lot of hemming and hawing we were also able to extract Bruce Gaston's cheque from them, although they started by saying that they weren't aware that they were supposed to come up with this cheque.

The "audience" consisted of people wandering around at a rather upscale buffet.  Well, never mind.  We began.  Zion sang a lovely rendition of "O Holy night" with a heart-stopping top B flat at the end and got a nice round of applause.  It seemed that the music itself would at least be okay.

The string quartet played a bit of Mozart.  More applause.  Then they launched into Jingle Bells and all hell broke loose.

First, the assistant F&B manager descended on the quartet.  He said, "No Christmas music!  The boss's orders!"

Well, considering that the programme we have painstakingly worked up consisted almost entirely of Christmas music, this was going to be a tall order.

Nevertheless, we got in a huddle and next we despatched Stefan to sing the "Toreador Song" from CARMEN.  He had just after all done the role to enormous acclaim in Bangkok, and you can never go wrong with this song.

Except at the Amanpuri, rated the world's No. 1 Spa, where a blonde, perhaps German, woman, who was Mr. Assistant F&B's boss, now asked us whether, as well not playing any Christmas songs, we could also avoid playing anything classical.

I called Bruce.  "It's worse," I said.  I explained the latest developments.

He said, "Well, they knew they were getting opera singers and a classical quartet ... and they knew it was Christmas music."

I said, "Well, I guess getting the cheque upfront was the right thing to do."

At that moment, it began to rain.  It looked like providence was going to get us out of this tough spot.  Well, the F&B people immediately suggested that we might as well leave.  "We'll worry about the details later," they said.   One of them said to Trisdee, "It would be better if I wasn't seen talking to you."  They couldn't wait to get rid of us.  It was clear they were all very nervous and that heads were about to roll.

As the van left the premises, the heavens began to open.  Rain was sluicing down in sheets.  The huge open-air seaside buffet was clearly not going to withstand the forces of nature.

As we entered the main road, Zion, a devout Catholic, said, "Jesus must be angry they wouldn't let us sing his songs on his birthday."

I found her simple faith curiously comforting in that moment.

I have no idea what the Amanpuri resort was thinking if it accepted the idea of a classical Christmas concert without realizing that such a concert would contain both classical and Christmas music.  I haven't a clue why, if they were told that two well-known opera singers would be in the group, they didn't realize that they might be singing opera.  And why a ban on Christmas music on Christmas Eve?  And if so, what about telling the performers in advance?

It is, I suppose, a salutory lesson.  I've never been fired five minutes into a performance before, but there's a first time for everything.

Monday, December 20, 2010

And now ... back to Controversy ...

I recently received a letter from the owner of Naxos, which is probably the most widely-distributed label of classical music in the world.  Mr Heymann, one of the most respected figures in the classical music recording world, has been following the Trisdee-Bundit controversy keenly.  You see, it seems that he does have a stake in it.  He has asked me to ask my readers for help and I will explain what he has asked for in detail.

Do you remember that in my blog entry "Bundit-The Plot Thickens" I told of an unexpected development ... that it looked like this was no longer a case of deceptive marketing, but might end up as out-and-out piracy?

That the question might no longer be one of an obscure artist from a small country cleverly marketing himself ... but a major scam being perpetrated on a much larger scale, in which K Bundit's reputation is but an iota of collateral damage?

In that blog, I explained how, although K Bundit's CDs in some cases made references to music licensed from, a website in which it is claimed that all tracks are conducted by a Dr. Keith J. Salmon, some of those tracks appear to be the actual work of extremely big name conductors and orchestras such as Karl Böhm, Georg Solti, and Neville Marriner.

My blog has set off a slew of responses in the classical music world.  John Duffus, the impresario, checked out a number of tracks available from Dr. Salmon and said this: "However, imagine my amazement when I came across one track that is unquestionably my old orchestra in a recording made in 1986 with the coloratura soprano Beverly Hoch" ... a few days later, he emailed me again.  "Salmon's Brahms Violin Concerto is the Kennedy/Tennstedt/LPO recording!"

Meanwhile, here is the email in question from Klaus Heymann:

Dear Somtow,
I read your column about the above and the Bundit CDs.
I think he was tricked by Dr. Salmon -- RFCM also had a copy of my wife's Vivaldi Four Seasons on its site and, in the meantime, it has taken it down from the site and all the other sites licensing this stuff from Salmon have also taken it down.
There are many more recordings from other record companies on the RFCM site, for examply EMI confirmed that the Brahms violin concerto is their recording with Nigel Kennedy. There are also Universal recordings on the site.
Liszt Piano Concerto No. 1 is Jorge Bolet from Vox.
Perhaps you can invite your readers to identify more rip-off’s on Mr. Bundit’s compilations.
Best regards,

People such as myself and Trisdee are busy performing artists (and in my case I've also got operas to finish writing and a novel that's 3 years overdue.)  Last week Trisdee dashed off to Turin to conduct the RAI National Orchestra and his concert was carried live throughout the Italian broadcast media as well as available for web streaming, meaning that his many fans in Thailand who happened to be up at 2:30 am could see him for themselves.  If we spent our lives tracking down the real identities of the hundreds of tracks on these websites, we would have to give up our careers.  

However, if we enlist your help, and go as far as we need to go to protect any performers whose rights may have been violated, we can all work together on this.

You see, it turns out that this is not about K. Bundit at all.  He is at best a minor player, and may be as much a victim as any customers who may have purchased his CDs thinking that he was the conductor.  Indeed, he has already made a move to amend the problem by putting stickers on the sealed CDs stating that he is the compiler, not the conductor.  (The question of "why now?" is an ethical one, not a legal one.)

What this is about is a more pernicious kind of piracy than what you can see in the alleys of Bangkok.  If I buy a Chinese knock-off of a Solti CD, it still says on the cover that Solti conducted it.  Solti is being cheated — but only of his royalties.  Any real artist will admit, if you get him drunk enough, that in the end it's not about the money.  If someone ripped off my CD in that way, I'd be annoyed but on some level, I would also be flattered.  It does, after all, add to my fame, if not my bank account.

When someone markets a recording by Georg Solti and says it is by someone else ... that is far worse than taking money out of Mr. Solti's wallet.  That is taking away Mr. Solti's name.  His identity.  His very nature as an artist and even as a human being.

This must not be allowed to happen, in this country or anywhere else.  If K Bundit has read this blog, he knows that at least some tracks on his CDs may be pirated.  If that is indeed the case, they cannot legally be sold, whether he was aware of the original piracy or not.  They must be taken off the market.

With so many artists screaming about Dr. Salmon's websites, my advice to K. Bundit would be to play it safe and just recall all the CDs until people like EMI and Naxos have gone on the record to state that Dr. Salmon has permission to use their work without attributing it to their artists.

Klaus Heymann has devoted decades of his life to making thousands of pieces of music accessible at realistic prices to a very large audience.  Thanks to him, I can listen to music which in my student days I could only get hold of my tracking down scores or applying to read manuscripts in libraries.  If he asks me to ask my readers for help, I take this very seriously.  

If any of you spot something suspicious please let me know and I will pass on the information.

Saturday, December 18, 2010

World Opera Week

On Monday night we had a rather avant-garde evening.  Last night we had a traditional gala night at the opera with the audience in tuxes and a presiding princess.  Tonight, we'll have CARMEN again, without the tuxes but with hopefully even more excitement.  And on Sunday -- an "alien opera"!

Thursday, December 16, 2010

Don't miss Carmen....

Don't miss Carmen ... here's a bit of rehearsal footage to whet the appetite...
Thailand Cultural Center 16th and 17th at 7:30 pm

Saturday, December 11, 2010

Vive La Revolution!

This has been an absolutely amazing week of ups and downs, drama, delusion, and divine madness.

First came the concert at Thailand's "ground zero", Central World.  Yes, I did hear from a few fanatic yellow shirts who called me to say, "Thank you for claiming back our territory!" To which I would reply: "Excuse me?  This territory belongs to EVERYONE.  That was the whole point of the concert."  On the whole, people did understand this, and understood also that where words fail us, sometimes it can be music that brings us together.

The last concert I organized in the name of peace was in fact in collaboration with the infamous Dr. Weng ten years ago.  Yes, I know the man has said a lot of insane things lately and become a bit of a joke, but I have absolutely no doubt of his sincere desire to make this country a better place.  Curiously, my mind did flash back to that concert, which took place in a relatively happy time for our country, when HRH Princess Galyani was still with us.  There were those who called it a "world war" concert because behind the scenes there was the kind of Machiavellian backstabbing and jealous betrayals that are the very subject of opera (both soap and the other kind.)

The Mahajanaka gala was not beset by any kind of backstabbing; the worst that could be said of it was the organizers had little experience with a big classical music event and perhaps didn't realize just what a major symbol it could become (though they did by the end.)  Everything was smooth and what disagreements there were were easily assuaged.  But then again, the concert was organized by private citizens, not by a government or political party.  So none of us was trying to get reelected.

It was certainly amazing to perform there on the King's Birthday and to perform music inspired by the story of the Mahajanaka; this is a story that tells us, indeed that the Avatar of Buddha was rewarded for his perseverance when an angel appeared to lead him on to his destiny.  It's often read that way: persevere and you'll see your guiding angel.  But I would go further and say that the story means that unless you sacrifice everything, that angel isn't going to appear.

God, or "the gods", if such there be and the jury is certainly out on this question, has a tendency not to show up until you have given and given and given of yourself until there is nothing left.  At that point, a space opens up within yourself.  It is in that space that revelation comes.  Ask any messiah.

After the Dec 5 concert comes "World Opera Week" — from a huge blockbuster CARMEN presided over by the Queen to a wild avant-garde romp at the Bangkok Art and Culture Center.  And it all starts on Monday with SAVITRI —the Thai and possibly Southeast Asian premiere of a rare and gorgeous opera by Gustav Holst, conducted (in his operatic debut) by the young Nadanai Laohakunakorn.  I hope to see a lot of you there.