Thursday, December 31, 2009

2009 - My Personal Vampire Junction

So, in a couple of hours it will be 2010 here in Bangkok. There's no one in the house. The housekeeper went to the big countdown at Central World, Trisdee went to see Avatar, and Jay went out with friends.

So I'm sitting all alone reflecting on the year that's gone by. For me 2009 was a watershed; one of the best and worst years of my life.

It was the year in which I finally came to my senses and realized I can't save the universe on my own dime. It's the year in which the Bangkok Opera's administrative structure, damaged beyond fixing in 2006 but sustained more or less singlehandedly by throwing my family's money at the hermorrhage, finally crashed and burned because I ran out of fingers to stick in the dike.

But also the year in which I found people who might really rebuild it the way it was always meant to have been built, the year in which we put on two of the finest productions in our history and in which our orchestra finally broke through the international credibility barrier. It was a year of astonishing bad luck followed by amazing last-minute rescues. I think I can honestly say I've aged much more than a year this year. I certainly feel it, physically and emotionally.

This is the year that Trisdee broke through to become an genuine international conductor, and Jay started composing, and Ruaychai become a concertmaster for Mahler symphonies. Basically the year that young people whose talent I discovered and nurtured have all started showing the world what they can do.

My own creative work has stalled, though; my major compositions, the Requiem and Dan no Ura my big Japanese opera remain unfinished, my big fantasy trilogy is on hold. It's really all because the details of opera admin have been weighing everything down.

So, I got to "the vampire junction that sucks your soul away," and I hope I've turned in the right direction now. Away from the soul-sucking. My new year's resolution, if anything, is to remember to be more selfish.

I want to avoid another 2009, but I'm not quite sure how to yet ...

Seaweep Soup

Gaze upon the splendour of this menu, from a small restaurant somewhere on Rama III Road. Of course, the "hot curry with mixed crap" takes the cake, but I am also pretty proud of the "seaweep" soup.

I suppose it's a reference to the high sodium chloride content of both the ocean and human tears.

Thus, by expansion, making the sea a metaphor for human suffering and frailty.

What poetry is to found in the humble typo!

Saturday, December 26, 2009

My Review of "Dances with Aliens"

I wrote this review of AVATAR that appeared in THE NATION yesterday ...

a personal perspective on "Avatar"
by S.P. Somtow

In 1977, Memorial Day, I sat with hundreds of salivating members of the Washington Science Fiction Association at the very first showing of STAR WARS. It was explosive. The packed theatre was alive. Every effect was greeted by applause and cheering. The world of nerdy sci-fi readers had suddenly become cool. The next decades were bittersweet as the masses began to infiltrate — some might say dilute — the purity of fandom's somewhat elitist vision of itself. But there is no doubt that STAR WARS' tropes — the Deathstar, "Use the Force", and so on — have become as entrenched in contemporary mythology as Achilles and Hector were to children of ancient times.

For almost 30 years, the science fiction community has been waiting for another such epiphany. Which AVATAR almost is. Its virtues as science fiction are considerable, its effects stunning and more than worth the price of admission. They are almost enough to drown out that little cynical inner voice that's bitching and moaning about the idiotic plot and stupefying dialogue.

No effort has been spared to make an alien world real. If you watch this film in 3-D, you will spend a lot of time being impressed. First of all, it's tasteful, not in-your-face, and the specs can be worn over your own glasses without any discomfort. The screen looks like a window out into a genuine universe. There's nothing contrived. There doesn't have to be, because the planet Pandora has been created with lavish and loving precision. It's a world that has been realized with such conviction and totality that you buy into it completely. It the film were a Galactic Geographic documentary, it would score a perfect ten.

Another example of the depth of detail in this film's world-building is the fact that the Navi language is so much a real language that I felt like pulling out a notepad and making grammatical notes. Some of my linguistic hunches were confirmed when I researched it onine later — it's a highly inflected language with a very fluid word-order, a rather limited set of phonemes, and fascinating grammar.

James Cameron has stated that the movie contains all the science fiction he ever read as a child, and that is easy to believe. Although the parallels with "Dances with Wolves" are obvious and, I believe, deliberate, the idea of a perfect Eden about to be wrecked by an uncomprehending, technology-inclined human race is one of the most important themes in science fiction. My first encounter with it as a child was in Theodore Sturgeon's classic novelette The Skills of Xanadu and James Blish's catholic take on the trope, A Case of Conscience, in which a priest reaches the conclusion that the utopian planet must be a creation of Satan because its inhabitants have no concept of original sin. Ursula le Guin's The Word for World is Forest is also an almost exact novelistic foreshadowing of this film. All these works and hundreds more are in AVATAR. There's probably even a nod to my own very tall, blue-skinned, sexy race of Selespridar in a series I wrote that was very popular in the 1980s.

It's therefore clear that Avatar has impeccable sources (one of which is not the famous science fiction novel The Avatar by Poul Anderson). My quarrel with the film is not with its sources — there really are no original stories per se — as with the fact that the sources are only half-digested, giving us a screenplay that insults the intelligence from time to time.

So in the end — yes, it's mindblowing all right. I will probably see Avatar several times in order to appreciate the complexity and beauty of its vision. But ultimately it's not the epiphany that the first STAR WARS was. In fact, it possesses the same problems that the second STAR WARS trilogy, impressive thought it looks, has. Like those three films, it's a film that treads old ground, more grandly and more spectacularly, and in travelling the safe way toward riches has given up some of the most important elements that made STAR WARS classic. The wit, for starters. STAR WARS was funny: AVATAR takes itself far, far too seriously. The character reversals: in AVATAR the lines of good and evil are drawn right from the start and never change. I was rather hoping that the nasty CEO running the planet would suddenly turn out to be a good guy, for instance, but all storytelling subtleties are sacrificed on the altar of special effects.

Having said all these things, which must be said in the interests of a fair critique, I'm still going to go back for another helping. As Obiwan Kenobi so trenchantly tells us, "Let go your conscious self!" You'll love it.

Friday, December 25, 2009

Getting Serious About Creativity

I wrote an open letter to the Prime Minister which appeared in today's edition of The Nation. Originally, I'd written a 2,500-word piece which really got into the nitty gritty of how the future might play out, but maybe all those details are best left for a genuine strategy session, if I were ever lucky enough to be invited to one.

Dec 21, 2009

Dear Prime Minister:

It was an honour to perform excerpts from Bruce Gaston’s extraordinary A Boy and a Tiger for you yesterday. It prompts me to write you this letter in a spirit of optimism and hope.

I am writing to you on behalf of my fellow Distinguished Silpathorn Artist Bruce Gaston and myself, but I believe I speak for all creative people in this country and Thai artists in other countries.

Recently Ajarn Bruce and I and many other artists were invited by the Ministry of Culture to two very different meetings. One was an intimate meeting with the Office for Contemporary Culture. As artists, we gave our forthright opinions and we all felt that our government was listening to us. We had a real sense that our ideas would be incorporated into policy.

The other was a huge seminar attended by hundreds of people in which government officials tried to lecture us benighted artists on the meaning of creativity and our function in society. Artists were incensed and some walked out.

The contrast between these two perspectives compels me to write. A renaissance of national consciousness may come to a halt while we wait for bureaucrats to reinvent the wheel.

When Ajarn Bruce and I began working together in the 1970s, Thailand was reeling from what, in the 1940s, was a traumatic cultural revolution. Thai classical music, vibrant and innovative in the early twentieth century, had been rejected in a rash policy of westernization. When traditional arts came back, the backlash caused an overreaction. Invention and creativity were replaced by rote-learning. No one challenged what was preserved, whether masterpiece or mediocrity.

In the 1970s a small group of artists flung open the doors. Bruce Gaston’s operas, like Chuchok, and my own fusion of Thai and western classical music, played out against the backdrop of the Bhirasri center, which showcased uniquely Thai contemporary visual arts. In a 1977 interview in Asia Week, I predicted that we would be the world’s next cultural hub.

By 1979, we were exhausted. We’d survived a lifetime’s worth of artistic ferment. We believed it was a noble but failed experiment. Bruce and I didn’t collaborate again for 30 years except to create, together, the songs “Thailand, the Golden Paradise” and “Amazing Thailand,” still used by the Tourism Ministry to sell Thailand to the outside world.

Thirty years later, I came home and made some startling discoveries.

First off, our revolution succeeded beyond our wildest dreams. What we did has infiltrated into every level of popular culture and become part of the definition of “Thai-ness”.

Some pundits view those two events — the slamming of the doors during the 1940s and their re-opening in the 1970s — as the last century’s two pivotal moments in Thai music. But what’s past is past, and we must look to the future.

Since those two meetings, I feel a sense of urgency. The government is committing a sizeable investment into our nation’s future. Funds are limited and we have to nurse our resources.

I propose four essential principles in putting creativity to work for this country.

First: we must stop dreaming that Thailand should become what it already is — the epicenter of creativity in the region. Everyone knows this except the Thais themselves. Please study what has already been achieved here, often against incredible odds.

For example, in my field of opera, Thailand is the acknowledged regional leader. Our productions are reviewed in the New York Times, Financial Times, and all the international opera magazines. We have achieved this on creativity alone, because, we don’t receive the 80% government subsidy that a European opera company does.

Second: Get perceptive people with a global perspective to oversee your policy. Otherwise, creativity will be overwhelmed by mediocrity. Really make excellence a priority; don’t pay lip service to it as previous regimes have done.

Third: Fund creativity and creative projects directly. Established artistic entities and artists should receive direct and substantial subsidies. If symphony orchestras, major opera companies, khon troupes, and avant-garde theatre groups get real money every year, you will see the investment repaid a thousandfold. We are not talking here about commercialism, but real culture, our national identity.

Finally, I must propose the most difficult thing for a paternalistic government to accept. But, having first learned to stop reinventing the wheel, having then set your eye on the truly excellent, and having made sure that those who are genuinely creative have the means with which to create … the final thing government must do is let go.

Please look at the BBC, a wholly government-funded institution which nevertheless has a charter stating firmly that the government cannot interfere in any creative matter. Government must trust us. We are your conscience. It is we who speak the truth, even when it is painful for the nation to hear.

Please consider carefully this simple, four-step plan for a true creative economy. If you can set up the infrastructure for it to happen, the country’s finest artists will rally for a creative flowering such has not been seen since the Ayuthaya period. I guarantee that the diaspora of Thai talent will reverse itself. Though I am one of the first Thai artists to have come home, I am confident that I will not be the last.

This moment in our cultural history is the vindication of what we dreamed of decades ago. A Siamese Renaissance, set in motion thirty-five years ago amid distrust, controversy, and apathy, is upon us. What we have prophesied has come to pass and, with the full cooperation of the government, can take us to places even we dreamers cannot yet dream of.

With my best wishes

Somtow Sucharitkul

World Fantasy Award Winner
Distinguished Silapathorn Artist

Sunday, December 20, 2009

Duo, in the Sun

Photos courtesy of the brilliant Boaz Zippor

Today I had a new experience ... I conducted excerpts from Bruce Gaston's opera A Boy and a Tiger for the first time. I want to tell you about this because, at my age, one rarely turns new corners. One's life gets set on autopilot, and many doors flung open with abandon in one's youth have creakily shut themselves.

It took a long time to reach this point because Bruce and I are polar opposites in every way, creatively in particular. There are essentially two ways to compose: the Mozart way, where you finish it all in your head and it bursts out, fully formed, onto the page, and the Beethoven way, where every agonizing step of the process is external: the endless drafts, the starts and stops, the slow chiselling away of the intractable marble. All my life I've tended to the former, and for the last thirty-five years have marvelled at Bruce Gaston coping with the latter.

The advantage of the first way is that when you produce what appears to be a first draft, it can go straight into prodution, but the disadvantage is that people think you are facile, because they don't see the agony. You become known for "whipping things off" because no one sees what you go through. The second way has the advantage that people immediately know the hell you have to go through, but initial versions of your score may be very far from the final thing.

One consequence of Bruce's inimitable method of composing is that I didn't actually see the score I was to conduct until the night before — technically, an hour before, because he emailed me a revision as I was getting into the car to go to the park.

But from the first minute of rehearsing the opera in the open, behind a nineteenth-century Siamese fort by the river, in the blazing sun, I could feel the magic of this production. I didn't think the fifty or so kids — not professional musicians — Bruce has commandeered from all over the country would be able to watch a conductor, but that was the first miracle of the day. They had never been conducted, yet they instinctively watched for their entries and followed the beat. And I realized that I was in fact the missing piece of Bruce's puzzle. I've experienced many performances of excerpts — practically the entire opera by now — by these kids with Bruce trying to direct and play the piano at the same time (the piano will be replaced by a large symphony orchestra in the final version) — and there was still something a bit fuzzy about this opera. something out of focus. It was amazing and humbling to discover that that catalyst was me.

To find out that you're the missing variable in Einstein's equation … that was truly stunning. Because there's no doubt that Tiger is a work of profound genius, even though not many can yet imagine the final product. Knowing Bruce as I have for so long, I have always been able to extrapolate the final product from the hints that have been dropped so far, but yesterday afternoon I felt that I had a real hand in making the outside world able to really perceive that finished opera which is still four months away.

The other miracle of the day was the rapport between me and Nong Mai, the kid who plays the lead in the opera. The way we were able to communicate in performance was so total, I have only had the same experience before with a few other artists ... all of whom I would consider world-class. But it was not a rapport that came from years of training. It came from this kid innocently and passionately putting his whole life in my hands for the duration of the performance. He's had an awful life, growing up with HIV and probably trusting few outsiders, but for the duration of the performance he totally let me do the "Vulcan mind meld" with him. That was awe-inspiring.

Well now the fact that the prime minister, the governor of Bangkok, and all the various top brass of the democratic party were sitting two feet away was also pretty astonishing.

I don't know how Abhisit managed to look so cool. The rest of us were sweating like pigs....

Friday, December 18, 2009


Dear Friend of the Siam Philharmonic:

Mahler & the Siam Philharmonic

Perhaps you were present at the breakthrough concert in 2004 when the Siam Philharmonic became the first non-student orchestra in Thailand to do a Mahler Symphony (No. 4) or at the extraordinary concert earlier this year of Mahler's Fifth Symphony which really put Thailand on the international Mahler map, drawing praise from members of the international Mahler society and from conductors and critics around the world. If you were not there, the concerts continue to have a life of their own through and through the distribution of DVDs.

The Full Cycle

Inaugurating a planned complete Mahler Cycle that will take place over the next three to five years, the Siam Phllharmonic and I have worked hard to arrive at a philosophical reading of Mahler which draws as much from Buddhist thought as from the passions of the European late- Romantic tradition.

The Thai Connection

The Ninth Symphony, scheduled to be performed on January 20th, is an ultimate meditation on the nature of death and one of the most profound works of Western art. But strangely enough, its opening theme is note-for-note identical to that of a contemporaneous piece of classical Thai music called "Waves lapping on the Shore" ... and when you understand the metaphor of "the farthest shore" being what lies beyond the ocean of life itself, you realize that here in Thailand we have a unique opportunity to showcase this cultural synchronicity.

When I pointed out this strange thematic congruence to Bruce Gaston, he agreed to open our performance of Mahler's Ninth with a performance of "Waves lapping on the Shore" by Thailand's most famous fusion orchestra, Fong Naam.

This will be the first time in the history of music that these two works will be played in the same concert.

Gustav's Angels

The Siam Philharmonic is scrambling for funding for this important project. For the Mahler 5 concert earlier this year, certain expected sources of funding were not forthcoming at the last minute and I advanced my entire royalty payment for the composition of a new piece
in order to allow the concert to proceed. The board of directors of parent organization, the Bangkok Opera, have indicated that I must stop subsidizing this project out of my own pocket and that the Mahler Project cannot continue unless it is self-sustaining.

Because of this, I am appealing to our audience. If you would like this important cultural project to continue, we need to have a certain amount of cash in hand beforehand. General ticket sales will cover some, but not all of our costs.

What we need to ensure that the Mahler Nine concert can proceed is one hundred special people who will champion this cause. Therefore, I am offering one hundred "Gustav's Angels" a very special deal. If you agree to contribute 5,000 baht to the Mahler Nine Concert, you will
receive a special VIP seat at the concert and an invitation to an exclusive wine reception which will be hosted by the board of the opera.

You may choose to donate more, of course, and if so your contribution will go towards the next installment in the Mahler Cycle. The names of all 100 Gustav's Angels will appear in the programme book and we will continue to carry your name in programme books
until the cycle is completed.

The idea of this programme is to ensure the continuation of one of the most interesting and significant cross-cultural projects in recent years.

Please consider becoming one of "Gustav's Angels". 100 of the very best seats in the theatre have been reserved for you "Gustav's Angels". Your donation will not only bring you to the concert but also allow many music students and young music lovers to experience Mahler live at a price they can afford.

To join this very exclusive club, send me an email directly at
A Bangkok Opera person will contact you about how to make payment and collect your invitation to the reception as well get your details for the programme book.

You may also contribute directly, right now, via paypal and your credit card by clicking the link below.

Best wishes
Somtow Sucharitkul
Music Director
Siam Philharmonic Orchestra

Thursday, December 17, 2009

I Have Seen the Dragons on the Wind of Morning

I posted The Nation's review of the World Opera Week below only to show that it's not just me saying that the Bangkok Opera has reached an artistic peak this year.

I'm waiting with baited breath for the results of another meeting of the Bangkok Opera's new junta, which is supposed to occur this week.

We are not out of the woods, but it is important to acknowledge that one is in the woods so that one can beat a path out to the next clearing....

Meanwhile I am having a great vacation (not much of one to some, perhaps, but it's been amazing just to go to Madame Tussaud's with my child ... and run screaming through a haunted mansion ... and other mindless pursuits.

Today, my young concertmaster Ruaychai turned up to go through Mahler 9, but somehow found time to watch the entire first Star Wars trilogy.

I discovered a remarkable thing. One discovers such wonders, when one has a moment to think, a luxury denied me until I fired myself from the opera. This is what I discovered:

The opening of Mahler 9 is chillingly similar to the opening of an early 20th century Thai classical piece, Waves beating on the Shore. They have in fact the exact same melody, treated in a very similar way. And when you understand "the shore" as a metaphor for death (as in Ursula leGuin's The Farthest Shore, one of the books that most influenced me as an artist ... from whose pages the title of this post is taken, btw) ... when you understand this what you see is that two vastly different cultures, at the same historical moment, hit on the same sequence of notes and found in it an identical meaning.

So, I talked to Bruce Gaston about it and the minute he actually thought about it, he realized it as epiphanically as I had.

So, on January 20, we are going to preface the Thailand premiere of Mahler 9 with Fong Naam performing that work.

It's a connection that could only have been made in Thailand. So, distant as we may seem from the world of turn-of-the-century Austria, there are strange confluences, and new ways in

Of course, I'm going to have to come up with money for this concert, as the Bangkok Opera is in reorganization mode. The Siam Philharmonic is only allowed to do revenue-neutral events. We can be ground-breaking, but not bank-breaking.

So I've hit on this idea: I want to find 100 "Gustav's Angels" for each concert in the Mahler Cycle. Each one has but to to donate the modest sum of 100 Euros for all the costs to be covered. Can it be done? Would anyone reading this like to become one of these very special people? Get in touch with me and you will get four major perks for becoming one of Gustav's Angels ... (a) a VIP seat at the concert should you wish it (b) an invitation to the exclusive diplomatic reception after the show (c) your name published in the list of Angels in the program book (d) the joy of knowing that you've subsidized free or low-cost tickets for many students and young music lovers who otherwise couldn't experience Mahler live in Thailand....

How about it, guys?

World Opera Week reviewed in THE NATION

Photo by Boaz Zippor

World opera week lives up to expectations

Published on December 17, 2009

From 'Boheme' to Beethoven, there's plenty of aural delight from the Bangkok Opera

The Bangkok Opera's second World Opera Week, five years after the first, opened last month with Beethoven's "Ode to Joy" and closed with its most popular tear-jerker, "La Boheme".

Along the way there was enough spectacle and excitement to uphold Bangkok's place as the epicentre of opera in Southeast Asia.

Somtow Sucharitkul and Bruce Gaston presented a sneak preview on November 15 of "An Alien Opera" at the Bangkok Art and Culture Centre. An orchestra, chorus and singer Zion Daoratanahong improvised a weird fantasia involving a giant robot that just happened to be standing in the atrium, courtesy of the visiting "Twist and Shout" exhibition of contemporary Japanese art.

Although deliberately designed to be gibberish, the opera was surprisingly comprehensible. As Somtow explains, "There are a few universal stories that all art tells."

More sneak previews followed. On November 19 at the Stock Exchange of Thailand auditorium, the Thailand premiere of the newly discovered "Ave Maria" composed by Puccini was sung by tenor Israel Lozano. The Bangkok Opera HIV Awareness Project, featuring performances by talented children, some of them living with HIV, was one of the most visible features of the festival.

The Puccini presentation didn't make up for the announced delay in what would have been the festival's climactic event - the premiere of Bruce Gaston's "A Boy and a Tiger".

That's been postponed until spring because of safety issues with the complex staging, but a large part of the opera was heard during the SET preview, and the next day as well at the Fest der Deutschen at the Shangri-La Hotel. It was certainly enough to whet the appetite.

On November 23 the festival opened with an idiomatic, highly charged performance of Beethoven's "Symphony No 9 in D minor", using the soloists who were already in town for "La Boheme", as well as members of six different choirs, Thai and Japanese.

The performance showed the Siam Philharmonic in top form and demonstrated that its triumphant Thai premiere of Mahler's "Symphony No 5" last July was no fluke.

Somtow has moulded the symphony with the youngest average age in the country into an ensemble with an enviable grasp of style.

The festival's closer "La Boheme" evoked a hearty response from its audience, which ought to have been much larger because this truly was opera on an international level, with a near-ideal cast.

Although Israel Lozano - Placido Domingo's big "discovery" - was sensational, as expected, and Nancy Yuen's deeply felt Mimi was in top form, the surprise of the production was young Thai soprano Zion Daoratanahong.
She certainly proved up to the challenge of her first big role among some of the world's most experienced singers. Darren Royston's direction was frenetic, with five dogs, angels, clowns, ballet dancers, and even a Bollywood sequence racing through the second act.

By the morning of the final performance, the buzz was on the Internet.

The reviewer at raved, "The Bangkok Opera's production of 'La Boheme' is world-class at every level, yet still infused with all the love and enthusiasm of any community-theatre production that's born out of the participants' love for one another in celebration of art and culture.

"Some opening-night audience members commented they'd been mysteriously transported to London or Milan or New York without ever leaving the Thailand Cultural Centre."

"I may be a rank sentimentalist," wrote David Giler, producer of the "Alien" series, "but I was moved and I loved it. It was particularly fun to go with somebody who'd never heard it before and was completely knocked out by it.

"The singing and staging was superb, and the orchestra has never sounded better. It was first-rate by any standard."

Saturday, December 5, 2009

I don't know why you say goodbye, I say hello

Three weeks ago, I resigned from the Bangkok Opera, effective December 1. I didn't do this for temperamental reasons, but because I want the Bangkok Opera to become a real opera company, not Somtow's insane folly. I am tired of playing the Klaus Kinski role in Fitzcarraldo.

When I founded the opera ten years ago, my goal was create a viable national opera. But the word "viable" means "able to exist without Somtow." About four years ago, this goal seemed on the verge of being achieved. We had the beginnings of proper funding, we had a semi-permanent production team in place, we had more or less a PR department and a publications department. In the last two to three years, by a slow attrition, all the jobs have devolved upon me, and I have also been forced to pay for the opera out of my own pocket or by borrowing money from friends and relatives.

Artistically, this is has been our best year. After three near-collapses, we have what everyone acknowledges to be the most accomplished opera orchestra in the whole region and one that has achieved tremendous successes outside opera as well -- Mahler 5 and Beethoven 9 were two of our most successful concerts. We have had the two most consistently high-standard opera productions in our history back to back. Both our "Thais" and "Boheme" productions would clearly not have been out of place in most of the world's opera houses.

However, during the month of November, I found stuck myself with all the major jobs myself. I had to stay up all night designing the programme book, had to rush from meeting to meeting to raise money and had to foot the bill myself when those meetings did not bear fruit quickly enough. I had to postpone receiving my own salary (which is almost all given back to the opera anyway). I had to do the rehearsal schedule, track down props, try to persuade world class artists to work cheap, auction off some of my personal belongings, and deal with a host of problems from which the artistic director of an opera company is normally protected.

When I submitted my resignation to the board, I explained that I could not both kill myself physically and emotionally AND simultaneously bankrupt myself ... that there was a physical limit beyond which my messiah complex could not grow.

I told them that if they radically change the way the opera company operates, I would consider coming back as artistic director -- JUST artistic director. Which was the original intention. To be a real opera company, not a vanity project.

A week after my bombshell which just happened to coincide with our most artistically successful production ever, four members of the Bangkok Opera inner circle had a secret meeting and outlined a plan for finally putting the "Vanity Project" label to rest.

It might just work, and my much-needed vacation might just be cut short. More news shortly!

Wednesday, December 2, 2009

Sunday, November 8, 2009

My housekeeper reveals all

Our little fundraiser and press conference events at the Rembrandt Hotel were briefly interrupted (not many noticed) by trouble between Thailand and Cambodia as my dad ran off to give a brief bout of telephone punditry to the press.

For real inside information about the political situation in Thailand's heartland, my housekeeper, Daeng, reveals more to me than the Post or the Nation. Someone suggested I should start a facebook page for her so she can have her own political commentary blog, but unfortunately she's illiterate. Still, she's smarter than the average politician. So, today, she tells me over my morning coffee that there's a big red shirt rally coming up, and they're offering 2,000 baht a head.

Make that 2 million and I'll be right there; I'll chant any slogan you like to save the Bangkok Opera. But seriously, the 2,000 baht figure is a very interesting new development. If you have been following the occasional political asides in my blog, you will probably know that in the heyday of the protests, they were offering considerably less money. 500 baht "officially", minus, of course, a commission to the recruiter, was I believe the going rate. This, coupled with a poll showing the Northeast now tilting very slightly towards the prime minister and the democratic party, suggests that our favorite fugitive has probably made a serious political blunder in accepting the Cambodian gig.

If my housekeeper's information is 2,000 baht net, i.e. not including the commission, then we see that today's political dollar only buys ten cents worth of anti-government protests. Of course, pockets are deep, and hubris is high.

And all this over a favour to a golf buddy. What an insanely myopic miscalculation on the part of the premier of Cambodia. I actually don't think this was planned as a huge, deliberate provocation of Thailand (at least not on Hun Sen's part.) Lack of judgment, that's all. I guess Hun Sen didn't go to Eton.

Monday, October 26, 2009

Second Avatar

Here is a video of the second session of "Avatar Dvadas"... it is quite something, I think you will all agree. The first twenty minutes are a performance by Fong Naam of a traditional piece from the Ayuthaya Period (i.e. it's about 300-400 years old) but the music starts to mutate into something really strange with the addition of the Babylonian names of the stars in Libra and four new methods of making sound: shovelling, stamping, shaking, and sweeping....

Next month, a science fiction opera to celebrate the rising of Scorpio ... since so many giant scorpions routinely attack the earth....

Monday, October 12, 2009

By Request, That Hideous Speech

I been asked to post the speech I gave the other day at the Oxford and Cambridge dinner. As you may know, these speeches are generally the highlight of these dinners, but as the dinner was a disaster, with very little wit and much pedantry and illiteracy displayed, by the time my speech arrived, an hour after it was scheduled, I could have given a reading of the menu and the audience would have died laughing...

Your Excellencies and your not-so-excellencies:

Being invited to give the toast at our annual Oxford and Cambridge dinner is a once-in-a-lifetime honour.

Being invited to do so twice, therefore, must either be considered a twice-in-a-lifetime honour, or a catastrophic lapse in judgment by the organizers.

Undoubtedly they have forgotten that my last speech was about farting.

Be that as it may, one cannot cross the same river twice, though it is possible to visit the same toilet many times in one’s life. I shall therefore try to choose a more elevated theme for tonight’s toast to that august institution so eloquently characterized by the Black Adder as “a dump.”

I want to talk about what makes the Oxonian world-view so special, and why Oxford might even be considered to have made a few minor contributions to our world. I am uniquely qualified to pontificate about Oxford because I took up residence at Worcester College at the age of eighteen …. months. Though I was there for three years, I am not bitter that they didn’t give me my D Phil. Nevertheless, it does point out one of the major differences in world view between the two universities. So let me talk, today, about those world views, and about why Oxford might, be some, be considered even more brilliant than its younger sister.

Let’s not stray too far from home, though. Some other night, I would love to talk about how brilliant Oxonians like Tolkien managed to invent entire languages out of thin air, whilst it was all a benighted Cantabrigian like Michael Ventris could do to decipher a few clay tablets in a language that had been around for three thousand years.

I would love to discuss the Oxford Movement, only I’ve promised to stay away from bodily functions tonight.

Instead, I would like to talk about the person who is, in my view, the crème de la crème of the Oxonian sensibility. I am referring of course to my childhood friend, the Lord High Governor of Bangkok.

Sukhumband has spent the last thirty-odd years (some of them very odd indeed) regaling people with his tales about me. But all things comes to those who wait and finally, I have been given this forum to give the Cambridge viewpoint, which, unlike that of Oxford, will be quite untrammeled by such inconveniences as factual accuracy.
M.R. Sukhumband tells a tale of how we were all spending a holiday somewhere in the country. All the young people were outside doing all the things that proper upper-class teenagers do: playing croquet, raping the peasants and so on. He noticed that I was nowhere to be found, and, following the sound of laughter, tracked me down to an armchair where I was deeply ensconced in a big fat book, laughing my head off all by myself. Sukhumband tells us that, wanting desperately to find out what could be causing a brilliant mind such as mine to turn into a solitary hyena, he crept across to the couch and saw that this was actually the full score of Mozart’s Cosi fan tutte.

The truth is far sneakier. I must now reveal that, after thirty-five years, I pulled a fast one. The book was actually a photo book called “101 positions they left out of the kama sutra,” and I had merely ripped the cover off the Mozart score and stuck it on.
Oxonians, as you can see, are quite easy to fool.

But I think the anecdote which Sukhumband has dined out on most often comes from the weekend that he and I, as teenagers, took the train up to Oxford in order to do our interviews. He, of course, passed his interview with flying colors. But when it came time for mine, the tutor said, “So, young man, why do you want to come to Oxford?” Too innocent to answer with anything other than the truth, I said, “Well, actually, I don’t. I’d really rather go to Cambridge.” “All right, then,” said the tutor. “Off you go.”

That story is all very black and white, you see, all very Oxonian. But now, let me tell you what really happened.

On the train to Oxford, Sukhumband and I were enjoying a drink in the dining car when a mysterious mist enveloped us and we found ourselves transported to a hilltop somewhere in Turkey. We were dressed in rough tunics, and some nymphs were piping away in the distance. Before we had time to react, three goddesses were descending from the sky, bearing a golden apple.

“What the hell is going on?” Sukhumband said.

But I knew all about this. “Don’t worry,” I said. “We’re having a vision of the judgment of Paris. We can be out of here in a minute. We just give the golden apple to the fairest, accept their gifts, and we’re home free.”

“It ended pretty badly last time,” Sukhumband said, struggling to remember his Homer.

“Just do what I do,” I said. “It’s a piece of cake.”

Judging their beauty turned out to be a bit hard, for the three goddesses were no spring chickens.

The first goddess looked about eight hundred years old. “I am the Goddess Cantabrigia,” she said. “If you choose me, you shall become a famous artist, known throughout the world, though you won’t have a penny to show for it.”

The second goddess was obviously older, but she must have had a few facelifts, because her smile was permanently welded on.

“I” she said, “am the goddess Oxonia. If you choose me, you will inherit a fabulous palace, become incredibly wealthy, have many servants, cars, and houses, and rule over a mighty megalopolis in a distant land that isn’t part of the British Empire.”

“Sounds good,” we both said at the same time. “I’ll take it.”

The third goddess really seemed to want to say something, but the other two said, “Oh, ignore her. She’s just our maid.”

“Well, then,” I said, “when do we collect our prizes?”

“All in the fullness of time,” said the three goddesses, as they dissolved and merged into the Mediterranean mist.

We found ourselves in a vestibule at Oxford. Inside, our doom awaited us. We were up for our interviews in a few minutes. “There’s got to be a catch,” I said. “We can’t both become governor of Bangkok.”

“You’re right,” he said. “it’s a violation of Einstein’s law of conservation of governorships. I’ll tell you what. If we don’t fix this, there will be a permanent anomaly in the system of causality, and the universe as we know it will instantly self-destruct.”

“Why didn’t the goddesses warn us?” I said.

“They’re goddesses! They can always create another universe.”

“What will we do?” I moaned. We had the entire weight of the human condition on our shoulders. The fate of the universe, as happens so often in movies, but rarely in our mundane world, now rested on the decision of one man.

“It’s very simple. I will sacrifice myself for the good of humanity,” said Sukhumband, setting his jaw into a heroic expression. “When the interviewer asks me, I will say I really wanted to go to Cambridge.”

“Are you sure?” I said.

“Of course! Anything for humanity.”

Never have I been prouder of my friend than on that day. I also have to admit that I was rather looking forward to getting the palace and the governorship.
He came out of the interview looking rather glum. “I couldn’t bring myself to do it,” he said, shaking his head. And he looked at me with those beautiful, trusting eyes. “You’re just going to have to save the universe instead. Besides,” he added, with irrefutable logic, “I am your phi.*”

The rest you know.

Cantabrigians have been saving the universe for almost a millennium, but only Oxonians, you see, really know how to govern the world. You don’t rule it by saving it. You rule it by having the intelligence, the farsightedness, and the charisma to talk other people into saving it for you. This secret knowledge is the peculiar provenance of Oxford, and for this, I salute her and ask that you all raise your glasses in a toast … to our slightly dotty older sister and all the brilliant men and women who have come from her.

*phi: a Thai word meaning older sibling. By custom, one must do everything they tell one to do.

Saturday, October 10, 2009

Wild Nights at the Oriental

Well, not that wild, really. The first one, the Oxbridge Dinner, was sort of hideous, though in a sense I saved the day at the eleventh hour, so I received a lot of kudos for appearing there. But I must admit that I'm not as in to Schadenfreude as I should be. I might post my speech at the dinner; it was pretty amusing and some people have asked for copies.

Last night, same hotel, same ballroom, different dinner; the frightfully upscale SeaWRITE Awards had the usual literati and the usual exclusive after party thrown by noted philanthropist Rex Morgan....

The pic above shows me and the Governator of Bangkok with the Therouxes.

Wednesday, September 30, 2009

Something Weird This Way Comes

Here's a complete (not yet sound-sweetened or edited) recording of the first episode of Avatar Dvadas, a meta-symphony created by me and Bruce....

And here's the blurb from the paper....

t's a meta-symphony being created right in front of your very eyes and ears, music woven out of the very fabric of Bangkok's newest hub of creativity. The piece is designed for Bangkok's Art and Culture Center, using all the spaces, shapes, and angles to be found within it. "Bangkok: Twelve Incarnations" celebrates a city that is constantly reborn.

In their first co-composed composition since 1977's "Hexaphony", Somtow Sucharitkul and Bruce Gaston are putting together a year-long artwork, one movement or "incarnation" every month, timed with the constellations of the zodiac. the work will be collected into a gargantuan video set.

It's a new kind of art which could only have been created in Bangkok. Part improvisation, part environmental music, part kinetic art, the work is designed to be experienced live. Once the twelve "incarnations" have been performed, the work will be collected into a gargantuan video set.

The first "incarnation", inspired by the constellation Virgo, can be experienced on September 20 at the Bangkok Art and Culture Center at 7 pm. Bruce and Somtow will co-conduct members of the Siam Philharmonic and Fong Naam ensembles.

The meta-symphony can be experienced from many vantage points in the BACC, but we recommend the lobby or one of the balconies.

Donations will be accepted for the Bangkok Opera HIV Awareness Project.

Friday, September 25, 2009

Getting All Cosmic

I dreamed that I was in a room learning about the speed of light. It was a beautiful sepia-toned room and we were examining the world through special magnifying glasses. The room ran on clockwork. It was full of cogs and gears. A voice told me that when you pass the speed of light, you may not know it right away. You won't feel any different. Albert Einstein is somewhere in the room. It must be Einstein's voice as it has a sort of German accent.

Then I am in the sea, training to swim faster than light. I swim past huge obstacle course of shark fins, and then, mysteriously, the sharks becoming flying diplodocuses. And I careen into the stars, past the diplodocuses. The universe whirls around me, brilliant sparkling objects, and I think there is a fleeting glimpse of God. When I wake up the whirling universe is still spinning, only slowly subsiding into the darkness of the night.

The day before, I was at the opening of the Indian cultural center. The great scholar Karan Singh recited Sanskrit poetry and then reminded us that we are all insignificant specks of dust perched on an insignificant speck of dust suspended in the infinite void. Boy, talk about a 60s flashback. I could have sworn there were sitars and the voice of George Harrison bleating softly in the background, and a wafting whiff of mary jane.

But no, this was a high society event, and soon the Thai minister of culture spoke, though his eloquence was not quite on the level of Mr Singh's. We soon retired to the murgh malai and samosas being served in the library. It was there that I had another cosmic vision.

There's this huge and splendid collection of Indian poetry and literature there ... everything from Kalidasa to Tagore. Plus ... one copy of Frank Herbert's DUNE.

Why? Did it just somehow fall into the boxes that were being shipped to the cultural center from India? Or is there some more profound meaning that we're not getting? Or is this, as suggested by Star Trek editor John Ordover on my Facebook page, "Because DUNE is in Sand-skrit?"

You see, as Isaac Asimov once told me, all the mysteries of the universe can be reduced to a silly pun.

Tuesday, September 8, 2009

Moral Ambiguity in Thailand and Sudan

Thai women don’t wear slacks on temple sites,
Not to piss off the pious, or inflame
The appetites of our chaste cenobites,
Or drown our morals-conscious town in shame.
But if a girl forgets, and dares to flaunt
A pair of jeans before our sacred Buddhas,
She’s but to rent a skirt from those who haunt
The doorways, making money as do-gooders.

There’s no such ambiguity in Khartoum,
Where pants in brasseries can be a pain,
The wrong attire can spell a woman’s doom —
The lash for Lubna Ahmed al-Hussein!
If Christ got 39 for freeing man,
What’s one more lash for freedom in Sudan?

read more of Somtow's sonnets at

Friday, September 4, 2009

Who am I?

I've been reading an interesting discussion on Wikipedia that started when someone edited the page about me and removed the word "American" from the phrase "Thai American." Then this person and that person chimed in on the discussion page (one of them even claimed that I had had to have royal permission to change my name to S.P. Somtow). When I butted into the discussion page myself to explain that I am one of those two-passport people, someone said it wasn't a reliable source. In fact, they went on to say that I should have to declare my nationality on this blog before it could be deemed a reliable source. As someone whose works frequently get printed in Asian American anthologies or appear in Asian American Lit Course reading lists, and whose novels are listed in the Library of Congress catalogue under "fiction, American" ... I think it's rather late for this to suddenly be a matter of controversy.

Western culture always likes to think in polarities. You have to be right wing or left wing ... black or white ... true or false ... a man or a woman. In Asian cultures, people often have no trouble holding simultaneously opposing beliefs, understanding that they are often simply different perspectives on a reality that can never be wholly subjective.

I, and my work, are a living embodiment of the polarity between having to have polarities and not having to have them. Does this make it a meta-polarity, or simply an n-dimensional one? Is it recursive? Or is it subversive?

I would answer your question but I must warn you that I'm not a reliable source.

Sunday, August 30, 2009

That Elusive Cup of Coffee

Someone or other has voted and guess what? This blog is in the Top One Hundred of all blogs written by horror novelists. That and a 35 cents will buy you ... oh, no, it won't. Not even in Thailand.

My novel, "Vampire Junction", is also on the Top Forty list of all-time-greatest horror novels, right up there with "Dracula" and "Frankenstein" ... indeed, a French newspaper recently reviewed the movie "Twilight" and said it was a watered-down version of my novel ... That, and 35 cents, will...

Muriel, on Facebook, has just pointed out that if there were a Top Ten list of horror novelists who also compose operas, I'd probably make that one too.

Have I got enough for a cup of coffee yet?

Wednesday, August 26, 2009

Somtow and Bruce • The Return

In only about 6 weeks, my Thai-language book, "Phasaa mai kaengraeng - volume 1" is going to come out. It's the first volume of a autobiographical trilogy that discusses my coming to terms with being a creature of two cultures.

The first book deals with the period up to 1978, and it therefore contains a lot of material which is incredibly important in the history of music in this country, yet which is no longer remembered or taught ... or rather it has been so subsumed into the collective soul of Thai music that no one realizes that there once a time when the wheel had to be invented.

I constantly am reminded of how much is forgotten. The renewal of the creative partnership between me and Bruce Gaston is, I think, going to awaken those memories. But we also have to get rid of 32 years of accumulated conventional wisdom.

I read in the paper recently a reference to what Bruce and I contributed to music in Thailand in the 70s. The paper, in all innocence, spoke of Bruce's creation of the fusion between Thai and Western music ... and of my passion to bring opera to this country ... as two important elements of that revolution in the 1970s.

The reality is, of course, in some ways its opposite. This is why Bruce and I so often are amazed at how we have ended up as mirror images of each other.

In the 1970s, when I first met Bruce Gaston, he was completely Asian, and I was completely Western. He was a student of Boonyong Ketkhong and in some ways the premier proponent of Thai classical music. I arrived and it was Bruce Gaston, the American, who in fact opened my ears to the sound-world of Thai music, but it was I who began incorporating elements of that music into my very western music, creating the ancestral (and not terribly great) work "Views from the Golden Mountain" in 1975 for a controversial TV broadcast. I went on to start imitating Asian musical techniques on Orff instruments which I found lying around in the Goethe Institute, producing the 1976 composition GONGULA. This then cross-pollinated back to Bruce Gaston and we produced a succession of works in which the styles became ever more fused ... until we ended up with our co-composed HEXAPHONY in 1977.

On the other hand, it was Bruce who first conceived a style of opera that could be comletely done within the resources of Thai music and his opera CHUCHOK was really what set all that in motion. My involvement in opera at that time was a music director of the BOS, an expat amateur opera society.

When the alliance started to fracture in 1979 with my departure for the U.S., I was left with opera, whereas Bruce was left with fusion.... we were in a sort of role reversal.

So yes ... today, Bruce Gaston is known for the Thai-western fusion which his band, FONG NAAM, symbolizes. And I am mostly known in Thailand for opera. But the truth is, we each started what the other continued ....

It's complicated, and it's all coming in my book....

Sunday, August 23, 2009


Well, it seems that the first really really public display of the renewed partnership between Bruce Gaston and me will take place in an incredibly high-profile arena ... as witness the above TV spot....

Here's a version in English....

Friday, August 21, 2009

The governor....

Well, there I was at the grand opening of the BACC and here I am with my dear mama, and the governor of Bangkok, who loves to tell the story of how I deliberately flunked out of Oxford by telling the interviewers I'd rather go to Cambridge. On October 7th, however, the "real" story of this will be told when I deliver the toast to Oxford at the annual Oxford and Cambridge dinner....

Tuesday, August 18, 2009

Immodest Proposals

Today I happened to read, in the paper, the petition signed by 3.5 million people asking H.M. the King to pardon Thaksin Shinawatra.

I'm a bit saddened by the text of this petition because it's not only a request for a pardon but also a political tract disputing the legitimacy of the current government. While I do agree that the coup was a misguided and ultimately self-destructive reaction to Thakin's shenanigans, the current government's hold on power, tenuous though it may be, is entirely constitutional and within the normal operating limits of a democracy. Almost every democracy in the world has had coalition governments such as this where no party possessed the ability to govern alone. "Almost" a majority is not a majority.

Had the petition simply been a heartfelt outpouring from those who love the ex-PM and weren't bothered by the tax evasion, pocket-lining, Muslim-bashing, extrajudicial killing and press muzzling that occurred during that administration, I would applaud the signatories' right to present it. After all, love is blind. It may well be true that such petitions should only legally be presented if the guilty party has served a little time and shows penitence, but in my opinion, anyone can write a letter to anyone else, even a head of state.

But the text of the petition isn't such a heartfelt outpouring. It''s a provocative attack on the legitimacy of a government whose democratic credentials are at least as strong as that of the pre-coup government, perhaps more so in that the last election may not have been quite so blatantly purchased as the one ousted by the coup. Therefore I'm saddened that those who may well have loved the ex-PM may have been manipulating into signing a political manifesto. In the end, this erodes the entire purpose of having an entity beyond politics.

Last year, I protested, and they removed, a Wikipedia entry that said I was an anti-Thaksinite. The reality is, I'm ambivalent. The man is clearly a genius, but genius does not automatically come with goodness. Otherwise the term "evil genius" would not be such a cliché of B movies.

Still, as much as I supported the yellow team's motives until they actually blatantly said that "the poor are too stupid to vote," I supported the right of the reds to petition ... until I saw that petition not only asked for a pardon, but also that that pardon include an implicit royal sanction of one view of the political situation. What was wrong with having it just say "Please pardon you-know-who?"

Well, I'd better shut up, or I'll find myself back to having only one passport ... (and it won't be the Nicaraguan one) I think that Purukanda's rap-style commentary on the Thai political situation says it all far better than I ever could. So look for it on youtube and I'll go back to talking about opera.

Monday, August 17, 2009

Shopera till you Dropera

One of the exciting events this week was the opening of the "Bangkok ShOpera" at the Bangkok Art and Culture Center. For the next 2 months, creative people and music lovers will be able to hang out and get to know each other and we will be able to hand out information about the opera. We've already met all sorts of fascinating people and of course, all our DVDs are available at the Bangkok ShOpera as well.

Soon Bruce Gaston and I will be giving a wild John Cage concert in the lobby outside using all the different levels of the museum to hide musicians in.

Today, the boyband classical string quartet that I created welcomed a new member because Boom, who we all know and love, has been shipped off to Fargo, of all places, for a year. The kids themselves voted to invite Top, one of Byrd's pupils, as their fifth member. I guess a five person quartet is like a four book trilogy, but it is useful if one person is stuck in Fargo. Top is a very charismatic and musical boy. The celebrated Andrew Biggs dropped in on their rehearsal because he's figuring out a way to package them for TV.... we might expand the membership to 8 kids, which would mean that one quartet could be touring all over the world and doing TV gigs while a second quartet could be shoveling snow.

Wednesday, August 5, 2009

A Brief Update on the Coffee Cherub....

Thanks to all those who wrote expressing interest and sympathy for the case of the coffee cherub ...

Well, as most predicted, I recently heard from him again; or rather, my housekeeper did. He called here and asked if he could have a meeting with her. She went off into the wilds to meet with the boy and his mother.

Well, the CC asked the housekeeper if she thought there was a chance he could come back and work for me again, but before she could respond, the mother said that he could only be allowed to do so if she could collect three months' of his salary upfront.

My housekeeper immediately smelled a rat and told her that she believed I would say that he could certainly come back, but he would get paid in the normal course of events and if at that point he chose to give her his entire paycheck, that was really up to him, but there would be no more calls demanding that he beg me for money and take it to her in the middle of the night, whether to feed a drug habit or for any other reason.

I think that was the right answer to give though had I been there myself I would probably have succumbed to the extortion...

The coffee cherub continued to insist that he really wanted to come back to work, so we will just have to see what happens ... things that are "meant to be" have a way of happening regardless of what you say or do ... we will see.

Saturday, August 1, 2009

A Mahler Clip

We have received a lot of positive attention as a result of this Mahler initiative. Great press, I'm told, is on its way.

Meanwhile, some lovely emails have come including half a dozen from members of the orchestra, thanking me for giving them the opportunity to realize their life's dream of playing Mahler's Fifth.

Here's an excerpt ... well, the whole first movement, anyway...

Tuesday, July 28, 2009

Thais Tie for First

Here's a picture of about 100 people I guess, all participants in the International Choir Festival in Pattaya where I was a judge a couple of days ago. You can look for Waldo, but you will probably only find me.

Thursday, July 23, 2009

Mahler: Death and Resurrection

This has been a very thrilling week which began with the launching of the Siam Philharmonic's Mahler Cycle ... but as I am running off now to the "Parade of Choirs", I haven't time to post anything about it yet ... so here's the article I wrote for THE NATION about it ... it was intended as a blog post originally, so here it is.....


Over thirty-five years ago, Piyabhand Sanitwongse’s living room in Soi Nana North was Thailand’s “classical music command central”. Everything happened in that room, from rehearsals of the brand new Chulalongkorn University Chorus to penetrating midnight discussions about the philosophies of post-serial music.

One evening, I was looking through Ajarn Piya’s extensive LP collection when I discovered, unopened, the Mahler symphonies. You must understand that Ajarn Piya had a huge LP collection because he simply ordered everything that came out. He was more complete than any record shop in Thailand. What am I saying? There weren’t any such shops in Thailand, really.
Being newly arrived from Cambridge, of course, I was a product of the 1960s Mahler revival. I had been living and breathing the Mahler symphonies for years, and had worn out all my own LPs; I’d just had the incredible experience of singing in Mahler’s 8th in the Albert Hall with an astonishing array of soloists which were a sort of who’s who of British opera, from Heather Harper to Raimond Heryncx, in a concert which was David Willcocks’s farewell to Cambridge. So I cried out, “Look, look, Mahler, Mahler!”

No one in the room really knew who Mahler was, but I put on the last movement of the Ninth anyway. You should have heard the silence in Piyabhand’s living room. There was only Mahler and the purr of the air conditioning. At the end, Witaya Tumornsoontorn, now a respected figure in the BSO, sighed, “How sweet, how bitter, how romantic … will we ever hear such music live in Thailand?”

Twenty years later, the Mahler revival had come and gone, I was happily living in the States, and the symphonies had become a staple of every symphony orchestra in every city in the world … but not yet Bangkok.

In the late 90s, when I returned to Bangkok to conduct the Mahajanaka Symphony, I had an audience with HRH Princess Galyani Vadhana, and I told her that standards in Thailand were high enough that we would soon be playing Mahler. Her Royal Highness was unfamiliar with Mahler, but my glowing description must have intrigued her, because shortly thereafter, the Tower Records in Central World received a visit from a mysterious messenger. Pongsatorn Surapab, the manager of the classical section, was asked to provide the complete Mahler symphonies. The messenger whispered that the command was from Her Royal Highness herself.

Pongsatorn is now the manager of the Siam Philharmonic Orchestra.

Later I was to ask the princess what her favorite one of the Mahler symphonies was. She answered “The Sixth.” And in that moment, I understood how penetrating and perspicacious her understanding of music was, because that’s a musician’s answer, not a casual listener’s. The Sixth is one of the deepest and most wide-ranging of Mahler’s symphonies, with a structure that is at the same time a fulfillment of and a criticism of the classical symphony.

I was still flying back and forth to the U.S. and my desire to be the very first to conduct a Mahler symphony in Bangkok was thwarted by the Chulalongkorn University Symphony under Chuchat Pitaksakorn, who with great bravery played No. 4, the shortest. I believe they also played No. 1 at some stage. But in 2004 I was ensconced in the Bangkok scene, and had started the Siam Philharmonic Orchestra as the resident professional orchestra for the Bangkok Opera. It was always our plan to start a real cycle with No. 5, the most “populist” of the symphonies, but No. 4 is a good way to ease yourself into Mahler; it is like reading The Hobbit in preparation for The Lord of the Rings. In 2002, I did play the Adagietto from the Fifth with the BSO, and I received a most moving email from someone in the audience who was amazed at how I had made the BSO rise to the emotional demands of the piece.

But only in 2004 were we ready to have a performance by a professional orchestra of Mahler’s Fourth. It happened in Shrewsbury Auditorium in our annual Mozart and More Mini-Festival. It was by no means perfect, but it had passion and it had the exuberance of young people discovering for the first time that what they once thought impossible was within their grasp. Although there weren’t that many people at there, the tale of this performance (to go back to Tolkien once more) “grew in the telling” and later the performance had a renewed life by being played online, via youtube, and its web audience far exceeded those who had been there in person.

The fact that people still watch this performance means that only last month, I received a moving endorsement from a Mahler conductor I admire greatly, Frederic Chaslin, who received the legacy directly from Boulez and who conducts regularly at the Vienna State Opera and the Met. He said, “I listened carefully to your recent interpretation of Mahler's Symphony, and I have to say that I am extremely impressed. Not only do you succeeed in making this young orchestra play really beautifully, but let me tell you that I didn't think that a non-Jewish conductor (and I think you are...) could understand Mahler's music so perfectly.”

It was thrilling to receive this compliment. Mahler once said that he was three times an alien: a Bohemian in Austria, an Austrian among Germans, and a Jew in the whole world. This sense of homelessness is something I too have always felt, as a creature of many worlds. It is what speaks to me most in Mahler’s music.

Mahler is the last great legacy of the symphonic tradition, the symphonist who really stands at the end of the unbroken line of symphonists that began with Haydn. After Mahler, there are still symphonies being written, but they look backwards; they are exercises in nostalgia.
Now that we are about to embark on a full-scale Mahler cycle, one of the things that thrills me most is that, for young Thai musicians today, playing Mahler is not a once-in-a-lifetime experience. In 2004, we thought it might be. But earlier this may, the Galyani Vadhana Orchestra played the Fourth Symphony under Japanese conductor Yazaki, using about 75% of the people who had already played the work with me in 2004. People got exposed to another viewpoint, another interpretation. If you play something once, it’s a unique … twice, and it becomes repertory. That’s what Mahler should be. In this ambiguous world, the thrice-alienated artist has become the true mirror of our collective soul.

Tuesday, July 14, 2009

I can't save the universe, after all....

About five weeks ago, my housekeeper introduced me to a fatherless boy who needed a job. Although we didn't really need anyone, the kid had a kind of charisma and everyone immediately liked him. So I thought, all right, he can be a houseboy, do errands, and what have you. I gave him a really cushy job. (His previous job was as a restaurant slave; long hours, sleeping in the scullery.) Here, all he had to do was make coffee in the morning, and bring me dinner as I labor on my latest opera.

He soon became well-loved by everyone at the opera, including all the opera stars who called him "the coffee cherub" because of the cheerful way he would always bring them coffee. He worked really hard and showed a little bit of musical talent as well; we were considering the idea of sending him to have lessons and also getting him out of his illiteracy. He was having the time of his life!

Then at the end of the month, he took his monthly big time off and went to see his mother. Like many peasants who work in the city, he gave her his entire paycheck. When he came back he was a bit ... strange. Two days later he told me his grandfather had died and he needed to go to the funeral. He was gone for several days. One his return, he was even ... stranger.

He had only been back for a few days when he showed up in my work room late at night and asked for some advance money. I thought nothing of it. After all, he had given his mother his entire paycheck, so he probably just needed a bit of cash. I was about to hand it to him when he said, "I have to go. My mother just called and she wants it now. I'll be back soon." His mother lives out of town.

I said, "But you just gave her your entire paycheck."

He said, "Okay, never mind."

His mother called again. He came to me and said, "My mother says I am to go to my sister's house, get money and bring it to her immediately."

My housekeeper, who originally brought him in, called the mother and said, "Why are you asking your son to bring you money in the middle of the night? Can't it wait?"

The mother said, "Okay, just tell him to bring the money at the end of the month as usual."

Then she called her son again and told him to get money out of me and bring it to her. I said to him, "I'm happy to give you extra money, but you can't just go off to another city in the middle of the night. The carfare alone is more than your mother is asking for (about ten bucks)."

He said, "I don't want to do this. I'd rather stay here."

She called him again. He comes back to my office and says, "My mother says I have to quit because you won't let me take her the money now. Goodbye. Here's the cell phone you gave me back." And he leaves the room.

The phone rings again. The housekeeper answers. The mother says to her, "What can I do? He insists on quitting."

And the coffee cherub is gone. His mother has instructed him to walk out to the main road and "someone will give you money to bring to me." She wanted the money so desperately she made him quit his job.

So I'm thinking, what in the world is so important that costs $10, and a woman is willing to make her kid give up the first chance he has ever had in his life of getting an education, being taken care of, being with people who for the first time are interested in his future, meeting dozens of people who want to teach him and help him etc etc etc .... and he has to go across a crowded megalopolis in the dead of night to give it to her?

The only thing I can think of that fits the evidence is that she must be a junkie. It took me a while to realize that because I don't really know any ... at least not socially ... I don't think. If there's another explanation that fits these facts, I'd love to know it.

Now I am very sad. It is clear to me that there is nothing I can do about this. I can't save the universe after all ... not all of it.

Sunday, July 5, 2009

Taking the Auspices

It's been a time of dire omens. Before Thaïs opened, a moth the size of canary hovered over the coffee machine. There was also a dream about lions, bears, and tigers. Then there was the discovery of the ancient cat dance, reproduced below,.

According to ailurochoreographic expert Richard Henderson, Despite the co-performer's sub-continental accent, I thought I detected elements of both sub-Saharan African and (especially) Polynesian influence in different strata of the performance. Given the very early separation of the African and Polynesian populations in the eastward drift (via the sub-continent, of course), this would seem to suggest a very early origin for the dance. Further (expensive) research is clearly required. It's so nice to be taken seriously for a change.

Thursday, July 2, 2009

While Waiting for a Detailed Report

The THAIS production was by all accounts a highly successful one, though the first night began so late that I've decided to give a free DVD of the second night to anyone who missed the last act....

Still very very exhausted from it, so I'll report later....

Sunday, June 14, 2009

My final days in Olomouc

What can one say about the final competition, which involved 3,500 singers, 117 choirs, 12 judges from 5 different countries, and climaxed each night in an orgy of raw beef and Slivovic?

I'm so busy putting on THAIS right now that I can barely keep my eyes open at night. So, all the reports about everything are coming after the 25th.

Meanwhile, I leave you with a picture of a rainbow, to show that I still have hope....

Wednesday, June 10, 2009


It was a few days after getting to Olomouc that I learned there would only be one rehearsal for "Nabucco." And when I got to that rehearsal I discovered that my preconceptions, based on a video of the 2004 premiere of this production, were all wrong. That video had been extremely slow, so I thought, I have to speed this opera up! After about 10 minutes of rehearsal, the concertmaster says to me, "But maestro, we are used to a faster tempo." It seemed that in five years, the opera had been getting faster and faster and faster ... Well, then the leading lady was "indisposed" and didn't make it to the rehearsal at all. Despite these problems, and the inevitable first half hour of caginess and mistrust, it turned out to be great working with the Czechs and eventually they responded brilliantly. The day after the rehearsal was spent trying to figure out what to do if the leading lady never recovered. On the morning of the performance, she was up, though, so about 3 hours before the show, I sat in the intendant's office lstening to their proposal for a cleverly cut version of the opera in which the leading lady was no longer leading, and the opera was actually about the OTHER soprano.... it seemed to make sense. I mean, Nabucco's plot isn't very logical to start off with.

The performance as it turned out was packed ... standing room only ... and we got standing ovations and a lot of curtain calls, so I suppose it must have made sense to the audience....