KICKING MUSICAL KIDS WHERE IT HURTS
By Andrew Biggs
This week your favorite columnist met up with Somtow Sucharitkul, Thailand’s famed composer, conductor and lapsed horror writer at Emquartier for lunch and a chat.
The last time I saw Somtow was at his inner-city residence where he lent me a book from his formidable collection about life at Eton School. “Be sure to return it,” he said in what remained of an Etonian accent, albeit beaten down by the ravages of time plus a stint in the United States.
I assured him I would return the book, expressing concern that he would even think I would fail to do so, and indeed, within a week I had read it and put it aside for our next luncheon.
That was a year ago.
This week we caught up again, and after exchanging pleasantries along with a book and an apology, I casually remarked that he was looking well.
“You need not say such a thing,” he said. “I have been to hell and back.”
He then proceeded to tell me an extraordinary story.
Somtow heads Opera Siam, its showcase being the youth orchestra known as Siam Sinfonietta. This is an orchestra of 14-to-25 year olds, mainly university students, who are an exciting array of musical talent.
I know this orchestra well, since I emcee their annual New Year’s Concert at the Thai Cultural Center and have on rare occasions even performed with them. They get by on loads of talent, loads of enthusiasm, and budget-wise, the skin of their teeth.
Thailand does have its classical music patrons, and Opera Siam is supported by the likes of Thai Bev, AIS, PTT, the Crown Property and the Bangkok Metropolitan Administration (BMA).
In August the orchestra did something very special; they went to Germany and the Czech Republic during the European opera season to perform The Silent Prince, Somtow’s opera about the life of Buddha. It was the first of ten operas he is writing about the lives of Buddha called Das Jati (pronounced Tot-sachart).
Thai musicians playing classical music on the European playing field, as opposed to being seen as a cursory exotic curiosity, is remarkable. And if Thailand is serious about having a good reputation overseas, it is worthy of support.
This is a country where face is of utmost importance, and retaining Thailand’s international reputation can be difficult at times when tourists get murdered on Kao Tao, or when human trafficking rears its ugly head, or even when unelected militia take over.
A Thai orchestra performing to standing ovations in the heartland of classical music can only be positive for Thailand. And that is what happened, when the orchestra performed four times — twice at a youth festival in Bayreuth, Germany, on August 10 and 11 and then in Prague and Brno, Czech Republic on August 13 and 17. They even received critical acclaim in the European press.
But while they were over there the whole thing was nearly destroyed, and not by the Europeans either.
The logistics of getting 70 Thais over to Bayreuth, Germany, for two weeks is staggering and expensive. The trip consumed half their annual budget, even with the performers agreeing not to be paid. This was an experience of a lifetime and a labor of love, but despite all that there were airline tickets to be paid for and hotel rooms to be booked.
The one remaining payment of 4.6 million baht, from the BMA, would pay for the day-to-day costs of living in Europe for two weeks. The Bangkok governor, his deputies, and everybody else promised them the payment. A sheath of papers was signed just prior to the troupe hopping a plane to Germany.
Seven days later, one day after The Silent Prince’s first standing ovation, the BMA deputy governor sent a Facebook message to Somtow’s sister. Owing to an administrative bureaucratic technicality, he said, the BMA would not be paying them.
Seventy young Thais were effectively stranded in Germany with no money for food or accommodation or means of getting around.
“It was an uneasy 72 hours,” Somtow told me over lunch.
This was not the first time the BMA had reneged on payments to Siam Sinfonietta. In May the BMA had ordered the opera to stage a performance of the ballet Suriyothai, promising to pay them 2 million baht for the event.
One week out of the performance, the BMA pulled out. “Somebody won’t sign,” was the reason given.
As a way of making it up to Siam Opera, the BMA agreed to pay 4.6 million baht for the daily expenses of the European tour. And once again the BMA reneged, only this time it wasn’t before the event; it was while the kids were performing on the other side of the world. Again, somebody wouldn’t sign.
Worse, the story threatened to hit the European press. One German journalist wanted to run the story of 70 young Thai artists stranded in Europe thanks to a heartless government back home. When that journalist contacted Somtow, our maestro pleaded with him to hold the story.
“Give me a few days,” he said.
Somtow believes he didn’t sleep for the next three nights. He rehearsed during the day and at night he called everybody he knew in Thailand asking for any help whatsoever.
“Many came to the party,” he said. The stories of Thais back home rising to the occasion for the sake of the musicians are heart-warming. One of the parents of a chorus member raised half a million baht among her relatives. The son of a prominent statesman contributed another half a million. Another generous patron wired a two million baht loan to them instantly, adding: “Pay me back whenever he can.” That man should be running the BMA.
Perhaps most surprising; even the German journalist, knowing how desperate they were, went to his ATM and gave Somtow 1,000 Euros, his ATM limit, on a daily basis.
“Within three days I’d raised three and a half million baht from some truly generous people,” said Somtow. “At that moment we knew we would survive the tour.”
Even more extraordinary was the fact Somtow’s iPhone and passport were stolen and he became a victim of identity theft; this all happening as he was trying to drum up financial support. “So you can see, you don’t need to say I look well,” he said over lunch.
Somtow says he doesn’t want to highlight the nightmare of the BMA, because it will take away from the generosity of those people who helped out. “It also detracts from the real story of our trip, which is that Thai classical musicians are being perceived as peers and not just as performing monkeys.”
He has glowing reviews from European newspapers to prove this. The musicians were lauded for their amalgamation of east and west, and their professional display of contemporary musical performance.
“This is a huge breakthrough in the way Thai creativity is being perceived in Europe,” he said. “Although it nearly killed me.”
What a story. I can’t imagine being left penniless with 70 underlings in Europe, along with having my passport and phone stolen and somebody using my credit cards. But Opera Siam got through it and survived.
And the BMA?
One can’t help but feel a little sad that the BMA was able to find 39 million baht for a Light of Happiness light show over New Year, and another 16.5 million baht to renovate the governor’s office. Everybody signed off on those.
But when it comes to a mere 4.6 million for 70 Thai musicians putting on a glowing performance in Europe — too-hard basket. When are the next gubernatorial elections again?