“Lenny Would Have Approved”
Siam Philharmonic’s Mahler IX was ecstatic music-making
by Adrian Tan
On Feb 10th, Siam Philharmonic continued its Mahler cycle with the 9th Symphony after a very well received performance of the 5th Symphony in July 2009. As was in the case with the 5th Symphony, this is the first time the 9th Symphony of Gustav Mahker is performed in Thailand. Under the direction of Artistic Director Somtow Sucharitkul, this young orchestra has made an ambitious bid to perform all of Mahler's symphonies, probably a first in Southeast Asia.
Tonight, the recognition of these efforts came in the form of the loan of a baton last used by the late great Leonard Bernstein to conduct what must have been his final performance of Mahler's 9th Symphony in San Francisco from Stan Gayuski of the International Mahler Society. Sucharitkul was visibly moved by this gesture as he paid tribute from the stage to the composer and Bernstein, explaining the central role Bernstein played in popularizing Mahler's music.
The concert began with a performance of "Waves against the Shore" by the renowned piphat ensemble, Fong Naam, under the direction of Bruce Gaston. This inspired choice for an opening act was motivated largely by the thematic similarity between this work and the theme of the first movement of the 9th symphony. The image of "waves against the shore" was an appropriate metaphor for Mahler's music , which has had an unabating influence on music, musicians and music-lovers in the last 50 years.
Fong Naam is surely one of the leading ensembles of its kind in the world. Opening with this was a stroke of genius. One wishes that the deeper meaning and relationships between the two performances were laid more clearly for the audience.
The Siam Philharmonic did not fail to live up to the standards set by its opening act. While the symphony started on shaky grounds with tentative ensemble playing and intonation, it built up into the 3rd movement and gave the audience a final movement to be remembered.
In the first movement, the strings were occasionally overwhelmed by the relatively stronger winds and brass, causing the overall the architecture of the movement to suffer. This could perhaps have been compensated with more musicians, or perhaps more importantly by drawing a bigger sound from their instruments as Mahler demands no less than for the string players to play, to quote Bernstein, "as if their lives depended on it". In the second movement, the winds compensated for this in their episodes playing with crisp articulation and character. Entering the burlesque, the orchestra started to come together and turned in an exhilarating rendition that was both deliciously satirical and violent at the same time.
In the final movement of the symphony the Siam Philharmonic really rose to the occasion, and started to sound almost like a different orchestra. There is no question that this music meant something special to the musicians of the orchestra - a quality that was apparent in the sound they produced. Sadly elegical, sometimes sorrowful but always beautiful - the Siam Philharmonic captured the spirit of the music in a manner that one does not always hear in performances even by renowned orchestras. A lingering farewell both optimistic but unwilling is a complex sentiment - and one that the audience felt beyond doubt as the audience remained in a meaningful silence as the music faded away for many seconds, before erupting into thunderous applause.
Maestro Sucharitkul’s reading was deeply intimate, in a manner perhaps only possible by a fellow composer, with every phrase shaped with care, true understanding and clearly intended to communicate and not to impress. His strong personal connection to this music can be felt, especially in the last movement - his commitment to his musicians on stage that charged them to play at a level of music-making well beyond what they were used to was an inspiration and a true joy to behold.
The orchestra has good reason to be proud of their winds, brass and percussion - particularly the trumpet and horn sections with their respective principals Lerkiat Chongjirajitra (Trumpet) and Krit Vikornvongvanich (Horn) whose numerous solos throughout the symphony were executed with confidence and penache. Also deserving of mention is Principal Flute Saroj Kanprasert whose excellent contributions did not go unnoticed.
The Siam Philharmonic did not deliver a note-perfect performance of the Mahler 9, but deserves a high score for a committed, highly musical performance that made for a memorable evening by any standard. Somtow Sucharitkul and the Siam Philharmonic perform in the tradition of ecstatic music-making that guarantees that every concert be a truly special event. Surely, this Thai Mahler cycle is one to be watched and Lenny, wherever he is, would most certainly approve and be proud that what he showed us