Siam Sinfonietta, one of the region’s premier youth orchestras, has its tenth season and has been overdue to give its Tenth Anniversary concert, postponed since March because of the Covid-19 crisis. On August 19 the concert will finally happen, and it’s a spectacular one at the Thailand Cultural Center at 8 pm. The current season’s members, plus alumni from all the previous seasons, will get together to perform Mahler monumental Seventh Symphony — the Song of the Night — an astonishing odyssey through terror and nightmare towards a brilliant cascade of light and hope, perhaps ironic.
It’s an astonishing work and even more astonishingly, I can’t find any instance of a youth orchestra having done it before. The first and fourth are done by youth orchestras frequently, the fifth from time to time, the ninth by a select few … No. 7 is a tough nut to crack. It might be the first time a youth orchestra has tackled this one.
But after ten years I’m proud to say that Siam Sinfonietta is not really just “any” youth orchestra. First, it wasn’t created “from above” — no socially conscious committee, no benevolent millionaire breathed life into it.
It was kids themselves, teenagers who asked me if I’d let them play “real music.” By real music they meant “big” repertoire, major works with all the movements such as professional orchestras play, not simplified excerpts or arrangements for a school orchestra. I agreed to try to put it together.
They roped in their friends. We decided from the first that I would never “talk down” to them. I was going to share all the history, context, psychology and philosophy of these works and I was never going to assume that anything was “too hard for young people to understand.” This was the beginning of a new method for teaching classical music. It involved five “C”s — embracing the CHAOS out of which creation comes. Finding CONNECTIONS. Accepting COMPLEXITY. Digging deep into CONTEXT. And, most importantly, finding the COURAGE that comes with believing you have something to say, and the means with which to say it. One day there will be a book about the so called ‘Somtow Method”, but meanwhile, someone already wrote a doctoral thesis about it in Hungary.
Mahler has always been important to these kids because really it’s a music that speaks very much to the sensibility of a generation raised on long-form movies, that is exposed to extremes of exaltation and despair, that lives in a world both full of amazing marvels and under threat of environmental destruction. In 2012, in their second year of existence, I took the orchestra to Vienna to compete in a competition in which, in the symphony orchestra category, every face except ours was Caucasian. We had the audacity to perform an unfinished movement by Mahler which I’d reconstructed from Mahler’s pencil sketch — so we were doing a kind of premiere of an Austrian composer, in Austria, with an all-Austrian judging panel. It was a recipe for hubris.
The judges said nothing when the other orchestras played, but when we played, the foreman of the jury felt impelled to speak. He said to the whole audience, “We have heard the message of the young people of Thailand — we have heard it loud and clear.”
The Sinfonietta won first prize, beating out European, Australian and American symphony orchestras. The jury later told me it was unanimous and unquestioned.
This opened the floodgates because Thai wind bands have won big awards before, but a symphony orchestra — that’s the heart of western high culture. But because someone had won first prize in Europe, many other Thai ensembles of young classical musicians felt encouraged to compete in the west and they won plenty of first prizes. Thai youth orchestras toured with great success. Our own orchestra repeated its prizewinning streak, winning gold awards, top places, in Disney Hall in California, three times in Carnegie, having a concert broadcast in Slovakia, receiving two awards in Prague, and many times playing Mahler — to standing ovations in Berlin, Munich, and Dresden — and these were not people who came to see an “Asian” orchestra attempt to play their music — these were people who accepted that Thai musicians had joined the mainstream of world culture — and were saying something new.
It’s been ten years since our kids met together at a camp in Rangsit and started rehearsing in the office of Dr. Asvanant, “dentist to the stars”. Since then, the kids in that first year are all prominent working musicians — the section leaders of Royal Bangkok Symphony, Thailand Philharmonic and the National Symphony are packed with graduates from Siam Sinfonietta. Many are working in Europe, too.
In the August 19 concert, you’ll hear not only the best young students, but also the alumni — some of the best players from all Thailand’s orchestras.
Mahler’s Seventh Symphony is his most cryptic. It’s the one that music lovers wrestle with the most. It begins with what seems to be a calm lakeside evening, with the haunting sound of a distant tenor horn. It quickly plummets headlong into a maelstrom, a nightmare journey. The opening movement with its extremes of terror and passion is followed by a disquieting march through a landscape shrouded in gloom. The third movement sees us reeling through city streets after hours, drunken artists staggering through a red-light district — it’s like a waltz from hell or one of those horror train rides at the carnival — there’s one still running in the Prater in Vienna. The fourth movement is lush and appears even restful, but there are menacing undertones in its moonlit vistas. And then there’s this huge, triumphant finale … though many feel that the bombast is tinged with irony.
Once, when our kids went to Europe, I took them to Mahler’s birthplace, a Bohemian village named Kaliště. The bus went through the forest and I told the kids that they must listen to the forest. We stopped to hear it.
Mahler’s First Symphony opens with a quiet D, seven octaves deep, marked “like a sound of nature.” I told them, “When you play the symphony, you must remember the sound of this forest, because it’s the sound that Mahler heard as a child.”
When Mahler died, the world thought it had lost a great conductor who happened to write a few unmanageable symphonies. In the twenty-first century, Mahler has overtaken Beethoven as the symphonist most frequently programmed by major orchestras. One of the reasons that it’s taken a hundred years for Mahler to really settle into the fabric of society’s consciousness is that the world has caught up with Mahler’s paranoia. When Mahler wrote this symphony, the traumas of the twentieth century were yet to come: the Great War, the Holocaust, Vietnam, climate change, world-wide pandemics. Yet in a sense, his symphonies foreshadow all these things.
Our kids, listening to the sounds that Gustav Mahler heard in the forest over a century ago, are sensitive to the fragility of our times. When people of my generation heard the rustling of leaves, we believed that nature was forever … or at least that it would outlast us. What our young people hear is different from what we heard. They hear the shadow of doom in their own time. They understand outrage as well as epiphany. And they know all about snatching fleeting moments of joy and triumph out of the darkness. They are not at all sure about redemption, but they have hope.
They may lack the experience to give a perfectly polished rendering of this gargantuan masterpiece … but I am sure they will give us a memorable one.