Saturday, August 27, 2011

Saint or Demon?

I read in the paper last night that Dr. Sugree has tendered his resignation as director of Mahidol's College of Music.  I do not believe everything I read in the paper, and it is certainly conceivable that this is not a "real" resignation but some kind of calculated gesture.  However, the music scene is awash with speculation.  

After ten years, it is perhaps time for an honest appraisal of the pros and cons of it all.  I joked on Facebook about how Steve Jobs and Sugree should simply change places, but maybe it's actually not a bad idea!

The rumors of Sugree's unethical behavior, corruption, and malfeasance are legion but I am not here to discuss rumors.  However, he is clearly an extremely polarizing figure and there are equal numbers of people who consider him a saint and to be the devil incarnate.  An examination of who constitutes those numbers, however, shows an interesting trend: the members of the "devil incarnate" camp have a tendency to include this country's greatest musical and creative minds, and that such people seem conspicuously absent amongst the "saint" crowd.

I for one had extremely negative experiences as "composer in residence" in Mahidol ten years ago.  I won't rehash those war stories here because it is all going to appear in Book 3 of my memoirs and I can promise it will be very juicy.  Right now, however, I am still working on Book 1!

There is certainly a case to be made that this person raised awareness of classical music, popularized music education, and directed huge amounts of public money towards a hitherto neglected arena.  There is also a case to be made for his activities being the single most destructive element in the classical music scene in this country, obstructing promising careers and hiding mediocrity behind impressive buildings.  I honestly believe that both points of view have elements of truth.

I recently was asked to give some advice to the newly created Galyani Vadhana Institute and I explained my theory on how we can finally have a proper music conservatory in this country that can consistently turn out great musicians such as Trisdee na Patalung and Ekachai Maskulrat - the two finest Thai musicians of their generation and both people who had to reject the Mahidol mindset in order to forge real international careers.

I think there are three stages to the creation of a great conservatory from scratch.  First, you must hire the finest, most inspiring teachers you can.  You must use the fact that you have these teachers to get to stage two: the best teachers will attract the best students.  Only then, when the human content of your conservatory is optimum, should you worry about building fine buildings and impressive halls. In other words, a great conservatory starts with great people, not with great buildings.

Although I did not add two and two at the time, it's clear that my philosophy is the polar opposite of that which motivated the Mahidol College of Music.  In 2001, when I first went there, it was all about the building program.  The college was being "grown" in the opposite order from my theory, meaning that it would be very attractive to bureaucrats and bean counters. but that the core value of a conservatory— the art itself — would take third place.  

I make no comment about the validity of the opposing theories because it is perfectly clear that the theory I do not subscribe to has yielded the richest, biggest and most income-producing music school in the country.  That is an admirable result for which, without any irony at all, I must salute Dr. Sugree Charoensuk.

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