Wednesday, January 30, 2008

Mr President

On Friday I managed to add the President of Singapore to that very, very short list of heads of state whom I have actually met and had a conversation with. (Let's see, how short is it? Queen Juliana, Queen Beatrix, Queen Elizabeth, King Carl Gustav … oh, and course, Prince Zere-Yacob, the uncrowned Emperor of Ethiopia, but we were in school at the time … that's it. A very very short list.) However, the circumstances were much more baroque than those other encounters; I met the President at the opera.

La Traviata at the Esplanade … not a bad opening night, with a very well directed death scene. I always like to see Nancy Yuen perform. I won't offer a detailed critique here, but the sets were extremely clever and the costumes lavish. I really had a great time.

During the second interval I rushed to talk to my friend Kay, whose parents were best friends with my parents in Holland in the 1970s. She was seated about 12 seats away from me, surrounded by many other local luminaries such as the chairman of the Singapore Opera's board, the ex-chairman, and such like. We chatted merrily for quite a bit before she said, "Oh, by the way, do you know the president?" The president was, indeed, sandwiched amongst all those opera movers and shakers.

And what a generous, gentle spirit he seemed to be. We talked about cooperation between our opera companies and setting up a common costume shop; he knew a lot about opera. It was, in fact, quite a constructive thing and the president promised to come to my next production if he was available. Indeed, I've never had a more substantive conversation with any head of state, though I've sometimes had longer ones.

The next day was an absolute revelation when I went down to the NUS campus to hear some students play chamber music. Although the principal fiddler snapped a string and had to repeat the entire second movement, nobody minded hearing it again. Indeed, it was musically and emotionally a far more satisfying experience than most operas I've been to, and I began to wonder whether I was in the wrong business. We took a string trio to a restaurant afterwards, where they consumed enormous quantities of Tiger Beer.

In the morning (my morning, that is) en route to the airport, I decided to buy lunch for all the Thai music students at the NUS conservatory. One of the more embarrassing moments I had was that I didn't recognize Teung, an extremely talented pianist whom I've known since he was about 12 years old. I suppose it's because I carry this image of him in my head as "a child". I wasn't alone in this, though; Trisdee, who has known him even longer than I have, didn't recognize him either. He's quite the young man.

Saturday, January 26, 2008

Mortality Revisited

So, on Wednesday night we played this little concert for Dichpong. In some ways it was a miraculous thing, although I did fall to the nadir of my conducting career by actually conducting an excerpt from "Cats" in public. I suppose that, after Wagner, Mahler et al, this too can be considered historic.

The concert was miraculous in the way that in the end about sixty volunteer musicians and a choir of almost a dozen ended up on that stage somehow or other, and performed with deep feeling; a lot of tears were shed that night. At the end, we handed Dichpong's mother all the money we had raised from the concert (it came to about 20,000 baht or so) and, in an extremely touching gesture, she donated the funds to the Bangkok Opera Foundation. I think that the old cliché of their not being a dry eye in the house was probably, in this case, no more than the truth.

I do think about death a lot more these days. I've written quite a bit in this blog about seeing more and more dead people in dreams. Though I did have a brush with death last year, I don't really feel any more that I've one foot in the grave, and yet ...

Miss the kid a lot. We put a chair out for him in the viola section in case he wanted to come down and play.

Wednesday, January 23, 2008

Another Day, Another Dollar

Today I was excited to receive a check for $1.50 from my New York agent. This check had flown 12,000 miles to land in my mailbox. To what did I owe such a massive windfall of royalties? Apparently some kind of court order, in which all the creditors of a now defunct New York publisher/packager got a piece of the company's "assets". My agent, the redoubtable Eleanor Wood, prefaced the cover letter (and I am sure that it cost more in her and her secretary's time, stationery and postage, to send it to me) with I know this is ridiculous, but.…

Well, I have to admit that this is the lowest royalty check ever to grace my mailbox. It certainly gives me pause....

Thursday, January 17, 2008

Past and Prologue

I preface my first blog of the year with a historic photograph. It comes from the world premiere of my Sirikit Concerto, composed a few years ago, which HRH Princess Galyani Vadhana presented as a birthday gift to H.M. The Queen of Thailand. (There's also a lovely pic of the princess leaving the concert that evening.)

It's historic because, indeed, it was a rare occasion when those two royals were ever at the same event, and this particular event was probably unique in its warmth and intimacy.

I begin the year with a photograph of the Bangkok Opera's erstwhile patron because though all Thailand mourns Her Royal Highness's end, it is beginnings for which she will be most remembered. Her special gift was to set a person on the road and nudge that person into beginning — a new adventure, a new life, a new outburst of creativity. In music, she loved to give young people a start. Indeed, one of her most lovable (and unpredictable) traits was to decide to come to a concert, sometimes on a day's notice, when she read in the paper that a particularly talented young person was giving a recital. Her delight in young talent was genuine and went far beyond what might be perceived by some as a royal duty or obligation.

Though I was saddened, a year ago, when Her Royal Highness wrote to me to say that her doctors had insisted she retire from some of her most active patronages, I knew that what she had given us was already beyond price. The five years that she was with the Bangkok Opera were a phenomenal transformation of the music scene that affected far more than opera lovers. (Indeed, the princess once confided in me that she didn't care for opera as much as for "pure music" -- the bits without singing.) What she gave the opera was the courage to dare, and the confidence to know that despite the difficulty of establishing new art forms and a new audience in this country, there would be psychological support.

I do not believe that Her Royal Highness's influence over the domain of music is over. Indeed, it can only increase as the true extent of her legacy becomes clear. It is obvious that, even before Her Royal Highness passed away from us, some people were already jostling to impose their own agendas on that legacy, but I strongly believe that the things this princess believed in will triumph and will do so in a spectacular way.

So here's a little clip from the happy times: it's Trisdee, playing the Mozart A major piano concerto when he was only 16, just after the Siam Philharmonic Orchestra was created (in those days still called the Bangkok Sinfonietta". Her Royal Highness was in the audience.

Next month, on February 22, Trisdee plays the work again at the CCT Auditorium. We'll think of the princess and her delight in youthful beginnings.