Wednesday, June 29, 2011

The Nixon Gambit

Let's forget for a moment about right and wrong.

Forget about injustices, perceived and real; forget about amnesties, forget about morality.

If one wanted to remain in power at all costs, what would one do?

Fearmongering about Cambodia worked pretty well for Nixon.  I don't know if it was the factor that got him reelected despite the Watergate scandal, but it probably didn't hurt.  A little Christmas bombing, a little misdirection that turns a lush, fertile, friendly little country into a den of evil, and you can have a ready-made bogeyman.

I've been told by several active yellowshirts that if Abhisit were to declare war on Cambodia, they'd come over in droves.   I don't know how many droves there really are, but while I was having my weekly ultrasonic fat cell reduction treatment this morning I happen to catch the yellow shirt channel while channel-surfing and was amazed at how similar their rhetoric was to that of the redshirts.   My author's paranoia began to smell an unholy alliance.

Walking out on the Cambodian talks in a huff is probably not enough to reverse the polls.  It might behoove them to remind people that Mr. Thaksin once worked for Thailand's arch-enemy.  I guess Montenegrins don't need a work permit in Cambodia.  Then there's the simple, tried-and-true tactic of invasion.

And why stop at one little temple on a hill?  Why not announce that Thailand's "territorial integrity" doesn't recognize the land grab of the dastardly European powers, and unilaterally declare that the 1904 border is Thailand?  You'd get more than one temple ... you'd get Angkor Wat, and Laos, Northern Burma, Tenasserim, and Northern Malaysia for dessert.  Nationalists will cheer.

Not advocating any of this, mind ... I seem to remember that the last person to do something of the sort started a world war.  Just pointing out that when one is at war, one rarely votes out an incumbent.

He wouldn't would he?

Tuesday, June 28, 2011

Klassikal Kids in Haydn

Just sharing a few moments from this weekend, when the Siam Sinfonietta went into the recording studio for the first time to produce an album of two Haydn Symphonies, Nos. 102 and 104....

Monday, June 27, 2011

The Gloves Come Off - Too Late?

Our next prime minister....

I wonder whether someone on Abhisit's staff reads this blog,   From time to time, I say something ... and shortly, someone seems to act on it.  Maybe it's just that I'm ahead of the curve, or that everyone is saying these things.

Recently, I compared two campaign posters from rival camps, pointing out how the Abhisit poster was covered with detailed statements of policy and ideas while the Pheu Thai poster presented a simple image, making itself comprehensible even to illiterates.  Shortly after that, I started seeing Abhisit posters with shorter, focused messages and more arresting images of the PM.  

When the PM said he wanted to bring the red shirts to task for the day of arson, I happened to post (on my private Facebook Page) a link to Purakhanda's video which actually has translations of of what the red shirt leaders actually said, set to a somewhat over-the-top "hollywood-like" soundtrack, and said that if he wanted people to actually believe it, he needed to start marketing a clip like that.  Sure enough, I am watching the democrat rally on TV (a few hours after watching a virulent anti-Abhisit hour of speeches on the PAD channel, so no one should accuse me of not looking at all sides ... and moments before Abhisit is about to emerge, this video plays dramatically.  I wondered whether Purakhanda knew about it; he was probably not watching as I've heard he's out of the country.

Last night's speeches hit the right notes and for once showed passion.  Today, the opposition is spending a lot of time dismissing it all as meaningless.  Perhaps in terms of the actual numbers they are right.  I had to watch the speeches on internet streaming; in a country like the U.S., a network like CNN would carry a major speech like this (from any major party) live in its entirety.  Only 20,000 people were logged onto the internet stream as far as I know, and only about 15,000 people were there, if that.  Afterwards, on the 11 oclock news, there were no really good sound bites from the speeches, and the networks were all over the fact that Yingluck had spoken to the Isaan and Northern electorate in their own dialect ... these were charming scenes certainly, if short on substance. And certainly her command of these dialects is a lot better than her English.  But then again, English-speakers aren't voting.

Therefore if they want to get any traction from the speeches, they're going to have to somehow become more media-savvy overnight.

One disappointment was that the promised revelation of "Dark Truths" didn't really occur.   I am sure there are plenty of Dark Truths to go around.  I myself have heard many purported Dark Truths, some of which are very dark indeed, from people at only one or two removes from the supposed "center of darkness."  But no one seems to really want to discuss what is actually in their hearts.  And nor do I.

Still, there is a genuine chance that the gap will tighten and at this stage, seeing these polls may draw out all those who absolutely loathed the Thaksin period.  Indeed, several prominent Yellow Shirts told me that all Abhisit has to do is declare war on Cambodia to get the yellow shirts clambering back on board.

Will I personally suffer under a Thaksinite administration?  Probably not as much as some people. I'm not on any list of drug lords, nor am I a Muslim in the south - so I have less chance of being killed.  When the Thaksinites first came on board, I thought they were great.  But now,  I guess as long as I mind my own business and don't fret about how we're inching towards some kind of slow erosion of our personal freedoms (this started in the middle of the Thaksin era but certainly continued  intermittently after he was ousted!) I guess I'll survive.

Wednesday, June 22, 2011

Dark Truth? or More Obfuscation?

As July 3 approaches, I'm getting more emails from friends overseas, asking me whether they should cancel their summer holiday in Thailand ... after all, there might be riots, killings, burnings of shopping malls, seizures of airports, and so on.  I've told them to bring their tourist dollars regardless.  After all, even during the worst moments of last year, the drama was only confined to limited areas.  And if things do look dire, we'll need the tourist dollars even more.

In fact, it is almost impossible to know what will happen AFTER July 3rd, although it is a virtual certainty that ON July 3rd, the Thaksinistas will get more votes than any other party, making Ms Shinawatra the most likely candidate for prime minister of Thailand.

Everyone is so confused about what might happen after that point that there's been an upsurge in omens, dream interpretations, and astrological pronouncements.  Indeed, my driver, the normally very down-to-earth Boonchuey, admitted to me that he had consulted an astrologer about the outcome of the election.

"Well, my astrologer says that Yingluck will become prime minister," he told me, "but will only remain so for a few days, because something dramatic is going to happen after that."

It is interesting also to note that many people I know, especially young people, have told me they're voting for Chuwit.  Why?  Because his campaign is more entertaining, apparently.  A number of members of my family are voting "No."  I ask them why, when such a vote is probably, to all intents and purposes tantamount to a vote for a party they don't want in power.  Their response is that they're too angry at the current lot even though philosophically more in tune with them.

Then, many of my young friends remember the Thaksin era for a certain improvement in the convenience of their lives — not having to wait in line to get a passport or an I.D. card, for instance.  Not having been massacred at Tak Bai or extrajudicially shot for being putative drug lords, and being so used to corruption that they really don't see what the problem is, they are quite nostalgic about that period.

One of the most interesting polls in the last few days was the blind poll carried out in the northeast by Khon Kaen University.  In this poll, people were asked given a series of policies announced by various parties, but were not told which party had promulgated which policy.  They were then asked to vote based on the policies alone.

Based on this alone, the present government won by a significant margin, and the Pheu Thai party, which is leading in fact by a large margin in that part of Thailand, fared poorly.

It seems that, in the area of that poll at least, the electorate isn't very well informed, and may not have a clue what they're voting for.  This is scary.

Since Yingluck refuses to debate Abhisit, there probably won't be any clear-cut choice between one set of policies and another.  Instead, the propaganda war is getting more and more focused though it's clear that the democrats have woken up rather late to the idea that they might actually need to carve out an identity.  For example, their newest campaign posters, instead of long lists of policies which clearly are not being read (at least by the participants of the above-named poll), now feature a simple declarative sentence: "I'll work for ALL our brothers and sisters — not for the benefit of JUST ONE MAN."  Well, this would have been a great message a month ago, but it might be too late now.  The idea of holding the a big pro-democrat rally right in the spot where the red shirts torched the mall finally shows a bit of chutzpah, though it can easily backfire.

However many moments of high drama the democrats produce, I think they're well aware that the numbers are not in their favor.  The Pheu Thai party will win the most seats in the next parliament.  However, unless they win an absolute majority, their seizing the reins of power is by no means assured.

According to an ABAC poll I saw this morning, if the election were held today, no party could form a government without the collusion of minor parties.  This poll also shows a whopping 30% undecided.

Polls aren't that scientific, but in this country they are probably even less scientific than elsewhere.

Our options seem to be as follows.

(a) Someone wins an absolute majority and receives a clear mandate.
(b) No one wins an absolute majority and someone cobbles together a coalition.
(c) The judiciary decides that someone cheated and nullifies the results.

(d) The army stages a coup.

Since it's clear that all of those possible outcomes will piss off a sizable percentage of the population, it follows that a degree of instability is also probable.

Still, my friends overseas, have no fear.  Tourists are always welcome here.  Come and enjoy the sights and sounds of this exotic cultural hub ... and who knows, you may happen to witness history in the making.

My friends from European Chamber Opera were stuck in Thailand during the airport closure.  Some panicked and left by bus and train, an arduous and exhausting journey that got them home no earlier than if they had stayed.  My friends who stayed behind told me that loved the extra vacation and they never felt unwelcome.  Some of them are here now, helping to plan our opera's UK tour.  I asked them if they were worried.  They said they'd seen it all before.

That, alas, is another risk.  If street protests become just another feature of the landscape along with traffic jams and tropical heat, they will inevitably become less effective, and someone will want to up the tension level.  Indeed, this already happened.  Many are appalled at the red shirts' arson, but one must ultimately blame the yellow shirts as well, because when they went from weeks of friendly, picnic style protest to seizing airports and did not get properly castigated, they created for the first time an atmosphere in which illegal acts by mobs might be socially condoned.

Tomorrow promises to be a big day.  There will be a rally for the democrat party in front of Central World, the formerly torched shopping mall.  Pheu Thai have told the red shirts to avoid the area, meaning that should there be a disturbance of any kind, they can plausibly deny that they were behind it and even accuse such disturbers of being "fake red shirts."  Meanwhile, the democrats promise to reveal some Dark Truth which would once and for all turn the mood of the electorate there way.

One wonders what Dark Truth (if any) will be revealed.  I can imagine a few.  For example, I have been told a "dark truth" by someone who heard it from an office in a certain PR firm in New York City which, if (a) it were true and (b) people believed it, actually would completely alter the dynamic of this election.  I wonder if it's the one they'll reveal.  Nah ...

Tuesday, June 21, 2011

"I want to be a conductor"

Today I received an IM from a young music student which simply said, "I want to study conducting with you.  I want to be a conductor.  It's my dream."

I really wanted to help him, and to help other young people who have said the same thing to me over the last few years.  It is not that surprising that he should ask me that question, because after all, my student, Trisdee, has become the most successful Thai conductor ever, measured by any standard that really matters, such as reviews by international critics, the ability to consistently be invited to perform with top orchestras like RAI and Royal Scottish, the breadth and variety of repertoire, the fact that he is on the client list of one of the world's top agencies, and the genuine respect of his peers and of orchestral musicians.

One may well wonder how it was that I taught him to do what he does, and how another young talented musician could be taught the same thing using some mysterious, secret "Somtow Method".

So to the young man who wrote to me today, and to the others who have asked me this many times, I have to say simply this: Conducting can't be taught.

One can teach the basic physical principles in about half an hour — how do you beat one, two, five, seven beats in a measure?  How do you cue an entry?  One can teach other things in a few weeks: what are the different techniques of playing various instruments?  What technical terminology do you use to extract certain effects?

One can go even further and teach "how to look good on stage" ... beautiful posture, impressive gestures, domineering sneers and expressions of profound ecstasy.  Yes, these things can probably be taught.

In pretty much all the music that musicians regard as classical or preclassical, i.e. the music of the great baroque composers like Bach and Handel, the music of Mozart and Haydn and indeed most of Beethoven, the use of a conductor isn't actually "authentic."  In those days, there were no professional conductors per se.  The composer himself, or someone he trusted, sat at a keyboard and kept time by banging out the chords.  The idea of a separate conductor as a professional musician emerged during the early romantic era and only gradually evolved into the image of the tyrannical egotist who controls everything.  

When a member of the audience asks "What does the conductor actually do," it is in fact a pretty relevant question because during most of the history of music, and during the creation of some of music's greatest masterpieces, there was no such thing as a conductor in the modern sense.  That probably did not prevent performances of Mozart's operas or Bach's cantatas from being deeply affecting experiences.

The emergence of the idea of "teaching" conducting as a separate art comes even later in history than the emergence of conductors.  Now, most conservatories have courses, and many people with degrees in conducting are churned out every year ... far more than available jobs.  And indeed, since having a degree in conducting is not a valid criterion for getting a gig as a conductor, one wonders what the piece of paper is good for, except to get a job teaching conducting.  So there is a self-perpetuating mill where those who teach have frequently not actually had real careers as conductors, and are turning out people who will in turn teach others.

Trisdee doesn't have a degree in conducting, yet he is represented by a top agency (Columbia Artists) and is currently the most sought-after Thai conductor in the world.  How does he do it, and what is it in fact that makes one conductor sought-after and another not?  I'd like to try to explain what I can.  What I can't explain is part of the great mystery of creation.  You'll have to take it on faith.

The traditional career path for a conductor in the European tradition was to begin in an opera house, as a repetiteur.  As a repetiteur you absorb a huge amount of repertory, learn to deal with singers, who are generally among the most difficult of performers, learn to explain to people how it goes ... and then you start to get to take rehearsals ... and then you find yourself conducting one day.  Conducting in the opera house is the best experience because there are so many variables, so many things to control, so many things that can go wrong, and so much meaning to hold in your head all at once.   Once you learn how to keep an orchestra, singers, and chorus in line while they are all moving targets and simultaneously trying to act, conducting an orchestra alone is a walk in the park.  My friend Fred Chaslin did these things, working for instance under Pierre Boulez at Bayreuth, and now he conducts regularly at the Met.

In Europe this career path is still possible, and many of the best conductors I know have taken it.  And indeed Trisdee is the only Thai conductor who went this traditional route, starting as a repetiteur with Opera Siam at 15, continuing as head coach at the Netherlands Opera Studio, getting his first major gig with The Magic Flute in Thailand at 20 which then caused the reviews to pile up and eventually netted him the Rossini Festival, the RAI Orchestra, the Verdi Orchestra of Milan, and Royal Scottish and so on.  It was the best hands-on training available to him.

In Asia and the U.S., there is not an active opera company in every single small town, so this career path is more difficult to undertake.  Nevertheless it is still best to learn by observing and doing, and young conductors frequently take an apprenticeship of sorts: my friend Viswa Subbaraman of Texas for instance served a stint as Kurt Masur's assistant.

When I look back through the history of recorded music, and at interpretations that have truly influenced me or been life-changing experiences for me, whether on disk or in person, I find that those conductors who "do it for me" have something in common.  They don't adhere to a "normative" system of "how to conduct."  They do whatever it takes to make a particular orchestra do whatever it does ... and they know how to get that orchestra to do it.  Furtwängler's vague gestures, Bernstein's ballet-like "acting out" and Klemperer sitting in a wheelchair and appearing to move only once every few minutes were all things that worked, but have little to do with how conducting is "taught".  The most important thing about these interpretations is that they were interpretations; they had something unique to say about the work, and the means to communicate what they had to say.  They shed light on the composers' work and also on our understanding of ourselves, our humanity.  These great conductors didn't seem to care about looking silly or uncool.  Sometimes the gestures they did seemed incomprehensible, and many were certainly unorthodox, but it didn't matter because the orchestra knew how to react to them.

So, to the kid who asked me whether I would teach him "how to conduct", I would say this: you can pick up all the basic skills just by keeping your eyes and ears open and watching conductors at work.

I would further say that you must respect four things:

1. You must respect the composer.   He wrote the work.  Presumably, he means what he says.  It's your job to figure out why.

2. You must respect yourself.  You have worked hard to achieve an interpretation of the composer's work.  If you don't believe in that interpretation, no one else will.

3. You must respect the orchestra.  You may not want to admit it, but they're actually doing the work.  Recognize that and they'll go to the very limits of their abilities - even beyond.

4. You must respect the audience.  If you talk down to them, if you look down on them, they will know. Without them you don't exist; don't kid yourself about that.

Apart from this, there is no "Somtow method."  I merely open the doors.  If they have the intellect, the ability, and the guts, my disciples (if they may be called that) will go through those doors on their own steam.  If I helped them a little bit, I was able to do so because it was essentially already all there, inside them, ready to come forth.

So, paradoxically, the answer to your question is this:  Yes, I can teach you to be a conductor … if you already are one.

Sunday, June 12, 2011


This is the morning of my departure from the Czech Republic.  I will do a recapitulation of my journey, whizzing through the former territories of the Austro-Hungarian Empire on my way to Vienna and, perhaps to stop off at the grave of Beethoven if I have time.  The last three days have been an orgy of choral singing, late-night discussions of the finer points of music washed down with slivovic and becherovka, and the consumption of several kilograms of raw meat.

Some of this raw meat is illustrated to the left.  Though I rarely eat steak tartar, there is a particular restaurant here, the Moravian Restaurant, which has the tastiest raw beef I know of.  The condiments are supplied separately so that you can mix up your own, but to me a little bit of salt, a large quantity of chopped raw onions and just a dash of the other half-dozen spices is enough to just highlight the high-quality Argentine meat.  One wonders what people did in Austria-Hungary in the days before it was possible to kill a cow in South America and fly in the meat.  Could this dish have been so delicious in those dark times?

Olomouc is a town that has special meaning to me because it was briefly visited by the two most important composers in my personal pantheon, Mozart and Mahler.  Mozart came here at the age of 11 to escape a smallpox epidemic in Vienna, and composed a symphony (No. 6) while he was in town.  The Olomouc theatre was the site of Mahler's first opera director's gig — he didn't stay long — and standing in the same spot two years ago to conduct an opera which perhaps Mahler also conducted here, Nabucco, was a very uplifting experience.  This time I went to the house he lived in which is ornamented on the one hand with a memorial plaque, and on the other with some rather disturbing graffiti.  The word "oxymoron" could well be applied to many aspects of these composers' lives (though not to their music.)

Although Mahler didn't have a very good time in Olomouc, there's now a bust of him just before the stairs of the Moravian Theatre, so presumably one must pay homage on one's way into the opera now.   Mahler's struggles give me hope that once I'm dead, all the institutions which have given me so much grief will put up plaques of the "Somtow once defecated here" variety and appropriately sanitized busts will be located in strategic places.

Here's a photo of the kids on the first day (under 12s mostly) awaiting the results of the choir competition.  A lot of screaming and crying.  The last day, with mostly adult choirs competing, was a little more sober.  The Singaporeans must have been happy as they scored several gold medals.  Indeed, they rehearsed themselves silly (as did the Malaysians I think).  The Asian choirs are always dressed to the teeth, whereas local Czech groups, particularly the children's ones, often just show up in matching T-shirts.  I think it is a measure of the fact that Asia takes its invasion of Europe very seriously.  The Singaporean choirs all, I believe, receive government funding.   In terms of technical ability, discipline and choice of repertoire I think the Asians acquitted themselves well and impressed the local judges very much.  

For sheer musicianship and penetration into the heart of the European choral style, though, one would have to give the edge to the Poles this time.  Their performances of works by Bruckner, et al, were exemplary.  Indeed one could not have asked for a better performance of Bruckner's Ave Maria than they gave, completely blowing away an already impressive performance by a Czech ensemble of the same piece.

By this time tomorrow I'll be in Bangkok.  Wildly moving forward on Opera Siam's first European tour. Bemusedly watching the election and wondering how it will affect funding for the arts ... such as it is.

Here is a panoramic picture of the judges (except me, unfortunately, since I took the picture) sitting around after one of the judging sessions at the Moravian Restaurant.  Jiri Klimes, the organizer of the entire shebang, knows what he likes and likes what he knows; we always therefore meet at the same restaraurant.  Unfortunately the panoramic view of the camera couldn't capture the plate of raw beef in front of me...

Thursday, June 9, 2011

Eye of the Hurricane

Or calm before the storm ... whatever ...

I have had a couple of days without concerts or singing competitions, mostly in discussions with my hosts about the future ... discussions which, as is usual in the Czech Republic, appear to involve large quantities of beer.  Not being a beer drinker, I can only gaze in bemusement at how much beer these Czechs are able to consume without so much as a gurgle.

In between our analyses of the finer points of the operas of Janacek, I am frequently asked about "the war" in Thailand.  This, as usual, being the international media's distillation of everything happening in Thailand into a few brief images or sound bites, with the Cambodians' propaganda being clearly more effective internationally than Thailand's (I do not say that Thailand's statements are not propaganda.  It's all propaganda, and it all furthers agendas that have little to do with that poor beleagured temple on the edge of a cliff.  To learn what the ICJ's stance really is, it is best to read my mother's booklet on this subject, which has already gone back to press.)

Following the media in Thailand as best as I can, it looks as though Ms. Shinawatra's coronation is already in the works.  As my analysis of two randomly picked campaign posters showed last month, they do have a much better sense of how to sell.  The judiciary is already being lobbied to pave the way for judicial nullification by way of the perjury accusation ... a genuine dilemma for the Thaksinites since both a guilty and a not guilty verdict would have a negative effect.  Some are claiming that 10 billion baht is "missing" from some vague "somewhere", though it seems that for 10 billion baht an election would be pretty cheaply bought ... I would be a little surprised if either party were to claim an absolute majority, which means that we may be back to Machiavellian back-room deals yet again.

Meanwhile, someone has obtained at least 100,000 signatures on a petition to return to direct royal rule.  This seems largely rhetorical.  But it is rather sad that so many have become disenchanted with democracy.

The media as viewed from a hotel in a mediaeval township seems more concerned with Congressman Weiner's wiener than anything else.  I am proud to say that I haven't seen it.  Perhaps I am the last person on earth not to have done so.  I shall resist.

Today the choral competition begins in earnest, with a dozen Czech children's choirs slugging it out vocally in a place called the "Bohema Palace".  I shall look forward to it as I am one of 3 judges appointed today (the bigger contests, tomorrow, have more judges.)

Monday, June 6, 2011

Dumplings and Bruckner

It's Friday and I'm still in Bratislava; this morning I listened to a demo by two of the choirs who will compete in tomorrow's competition.  The Singaporean children's choir sang Chinese and Filipino pieces as well as "Turkey in the Straw."  This is a picture of the site of the demo, a place called "Mirbach Palace" which contains many art treasures; I would include a photo of a gorgeous large painting by Veronese, but unfortunately they didn't allow photographs.

After the mornings demo they treated us to a lengthy lunch which stretched for hours.  The food was enormous and a street harpist serenaded us with selections from Andrew Lloyd Weber. 

Our friends' concept of a light snack is very much in line with how seriously they all take their meals around here ... and lunch lasted virtually until dinnertime, when we continued with a concert by the Slovak Philharmonic, a rather exciting night with a Shostakovich cello concerto and a Bruckner Symphony ... front row seats for two for the princely total of 12 Euros.  James Judd conducted and this was an exemplary concert such as could have been heard in any of the best halls in Western Europe (for a lot more money.)  Compared to last night's opera, which was fairly run-of-the-mill, this was an extraordinary concert.  I realized that there's a profound difference in priorities in Bratislava and Bangkok: in Bangkok you can get a street meal for 50 baht, but great seats to a Mahler symphony cost about 1000; here a street meal is EU 12.90, but a single ticket for a Bruckner concert is 8 EU.  Pretty interesting.  It's not simply supply and demand.  It's a whole way of life.

 The Shostokovich cello concerto is one of the hardest works ever written for that instrument, including a lengthy (indeed almost interminable) cadenza which, on CDs, merits a separate track number as it's like a movement of its own.  Eugen Prachac, a Slovakian cellist, did very well and sitting right beneath him as we did, we could hear his dramatic breathing as a plangent counterpoint to Shostakovich's angst-ridden passagework.

Although inspired and moved by the performance of Bruckner 5, however, I realized it wouldn't be the idea work with which to introduce Bruckner to audiences in Thailand. 

Bruckner composes in monumental blocks which are not at first hearing connected to each other, something his own pupils desperately tried to "correct."

The Fifth might appear disjointed to listeners new to it and therefore I've been thinking that we'll introduce Bruckner with the more accessible No. 4,  or perhaps the incredible No. 9 which though gargantuan, has the pseu-advantage of being one movement shorter by virtue of being unfinished.  We'd also be able to use our Wagner tubas, sitting around unused since Walküre.

So finally came the competition ... less one choir, because it seems that a member of the Filipino choir was caught smuggling an illicit substance, and the entire choir was sent back to the Philippines.  Oddly enough, a Filipino song did win the competition ... sung by a group of Singaporean children.  Here's a tense moment in the judging and ... here is a jollier picture of the Singaporeans probably rejoicing in their 98% win....