Siam Sinfonietta, the two-year-old youth orchestra founded by Silpathorn Kittikhun Artist Somtow Sucharitkul, has won first place in one of the most prestigious competitions for youth ensembles, at the Golden Hall of the Musikverein in Vienna, on July 8th, 2012. The orchestra beat out finalists from Australia, the United States and Denmark and dazzled the jury with music by Thai and Austrian composers. The next day, the orchestra performed in the “Winners Concert” at Vienna’s celebrated Konzerthaus as part of the victory celebration. Thailand’s internationally known conductors Somtow and Trisdee na Patalung alternated conducting chores during the competition.
The Summa Cum Laude Festival has taken place for the last fourteen years in Vienna and each year welcomes dozens of choirs, bands and orchestras from around the world. To participate members must first be auditioned by video and audio submissions. The judges are top professionals from around the world and the patron of the festival is famed conductor Nikolaus Harnoncourt.
Somtow said, “The choice of repertoire for the competition itself was crucial and I think one of the factors that helped us was our sheer chutzpah in presenting, in Vienna, a new transcription of part of Gustav Mahler’s posthumous Tenth Symphony which I did from Mahler’s pencil sketches. Thiswas quintessentially Viennese music, presented in Vienna to judges who know Mahler’s music backwards. It was a risky move which paid off brilliantly. The chair of the judging committee said to me afterwards — ‘Your arrangement really sounded like Mahler — and your orchestra really played it like authentic Mahler.’ This was an amazing compliment.”
The compulsory piece for the composition was Beethoven’s Egmont Overture, an extremely well known piece. Trisdee na Patalung chose to conduct theoverture in a historically informed style (this style indeed was pioneered by Nikolaus Harnoncourt in the 1970s.) His artistic choices really got the jury’s attention and they became aware that the Siam Sinfonietta’s performance style is quite cutting edge and up to date on the latest
European discoveries about the classical style. “The other orchestras seem to have played the Beethoven in a more conservative, ‘safer’ style,” Trisdeesaid. Watching the jury’s faces while Trisdee conducted, Somtow said, “There came a unique moment where Trisdee takes a split-second ‘comma’ or moment of silence before attaching a certain climactic sequence. At that moment, one of the jury members had a broad smile of approval and we knew that Trisdee had hit upon an interpretation that was not only new, but absolutely right for the music. From that moment on, I knew that the jury were on our side.”
Two pieces by Thai composers received their Austrian premieres in the Musikverein as well. One was Trisdee’s well-known composition Eternity for pi java and symphony orchestra. “I chose this piece,” Somtow said, “because I knew the sound of the pi java would be absolutely mesmerizing to a European audience. And as I thought, the minute the sound was heard, the jury members rushed to open their copies of the score of the piece, trying to figure out whether the ornamentation was written in or improvised.” Composed in memory of HRH Princess Galyani Vadhana, Eternity was played at the princess’s funeral in 2008 and has become Trisdee’s best-known work.
The final piece played in composition was an excerpt from the upcoming ballet-opera Suriyothai by Somtow, a piece called “Burmese March.” Somtow said, “This is not a deeply moving piece like Eternity nor is it a profoundly complex emotional labyrinth like Mahler’s Purgatorio. I wrote this piece to show off the Sinfonietta’s command of color and rhythm and drama ... and it fits their abilities like a glove.”
The Burmese March was selected by the jury to be played at the winners’ concert.
The Sinfonietta, sponsored by the Singha Corporation with specially airfare concessions from Thai International, has been on a four-country tour of Central Europe. They opened June 30th at the Cuvillies Theatre in Munich, where Mozart once conducted the world premiere of his opera Idomeneo. They then performed in Frankfurt, in a church in the Czech town of Tachov, at Bouzov Castle near Olomouc, in Slovakia at a festival in the town of Pest’ane before arriving in Vienna where they had two scheduled concerts in addition to the competition.
The repertoire played during the tour has been varied, including premieres by two young composers, Poumpak Charuprakorn and Natthapong (Jay) Yutthanasirikul who is the orchestra’s concertmaster and also, as violin soloist, played the haunting Romance in F by Beethoven. The tour’s lineup also included Somtow’s 1974 arrangement of H.M. the King’s “Sai Fon” originally commissioned by the Chulangkorn University chorus, Dvorak’s Slavonic Dance No. 8, and Schubert’s Unfinished Symphony.
Before they want on stage, Somtow did a very Thai thing. He led the orchestra in a brief meditation. “We are single organism,” he told them. “If the conductor is the brain, and the concert master is the heart, each one of you is a vital organ and each one of you is indispensible.” Somtow then spoke about how music comes from love, and quoted the teachings of Lord Buddha and St. Paul about the nature of love. He then asked the orchestra to close their eyes and try to feel each others’ presence, to breathe as one and feel as one. Somtow says, “I believe that this meditation reinforced our orchestra’s feeling of oneness and it is a distinctly Thai way of approaching our art and our feelings.” He also asked everyone to remember HRH Princess Galyani, the patron saint of classical music in Thailand.
“The tour was an incredible opportunity for these young Thai musicians,” Somtow stand. “To stand in the very epicenter of classical music, to breathe the air the Mozart Beethoven, Mahler and Schubert breathed, to see the sights and actually make music in the very halls these great composers played in ... this was a life-changing experience. I’m so proud of all of them, from my two star students Trisdee and Natthapong who have forged their unique musical identities from all the raw material I’ve given them, to every member of this orchestra who has worked so hard to make this happen.”
When the head of the jury got up to address the orchestra at the end of their performance, he said what he did not say to any other orchestra. He said, “The people of Vienna have heard the message from Thailand loud andclear.” What he meant by this was that our Thai musicians, our young people who feel so passionately about this art form — we have succeeded in being accepted as part of the mainstream of classical music. We are not outsiders looking in. We are a very big part of the adventure.
“Everything has changed as a result of this victory,” Somtow said. “The music world has seen us now. We are on the map. All things are now possible for Thailand’s serious young musicians.”