The Old and the New

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Hikotaro Yazaki conducts the SSMS Orchestra during the concert in Pattaya. (Photo/Peter Tresize)
Hikotaro Yazaki conducts the SSMS Orchestra during the concert in Pattaya. (Photo/Peter Tresize)

The SSMS Orchestra (it stands for Silpakorn Summer Music School) exists as a result of Silpakorn University’s summer music residential course, which is held every year at the Siam Commercial Bank premises near the beach at Bang Saray. Advanced instrumental players of different ages and backgrounds come together to study and rehearse a programme of classical music under a team of experienced tutors.

The course culminates in two concerts, the first at Tiffany’s Show Theatre in Pattaya (this year held April 6) and the second at Siam Commercial Bank’s Mahisorn Hall in Bangkok. As usual, the concert was conducted by Hikotaro Yazaki, an internationally-recognized Japanese musician who has presided over many an orchestra in both Asia and Europe.

The concert opened with a performance of Gounod’s rarely heard Petite Symphonie. We don’t hear much of his music these days, except his often-played Ave Maria based on a keyboard work by Bach. He was one of the most respected French composers of the nineteenth century and the symphony is unusual in that it is written for a chamber-sized wind ensemble. Dating from 1885, it was one of his later works but could have come from another age, and it must have sounded quite old-fashioned at its first performance in Paris. Even so, it is delightful music with an undeniable French accent, attractive melodies and bright simple harmonies.

It was given a competent performance by the young musicians. The flute solo in the second movement was especially expressive and the last movement included some attractive oboe playing.

Emmanuel Sejourne is a French percussionist and prolific composer, who was born in Limoges in 1961. His music is rhythmic, romantic, energetic and inspired by both the Western classical tradition and by popular culture. He has written several concertos for percussion instruments and his attractive concerto for Marimba and String Orchestra has been performed over four hundred times since its composition in 2005. At the SSMS concert, the work was played by the brilliant young Thai percussionist Wasupon Tarntira. He studied at Rangsit University and also in the Netherlands and Austria. He is currently studying for his Master of Music degree in Belgium. He is a superb player and I was impressed by his innate sense of rhythm, his dynamic control and his sheer sense of musicianship.

The marimba is a type of large xylophone with wooden bars and large resonators underneath. It is a chromatic instrument with two rows of bars and has a much wider range and richer tone quality than a conventional xylophone. Sejourne’s two-movement concerto opens with atmospheric sustained strings leading to a declamatory flourish from marimba. The solo part contains a great deal of pianistic style writing, requiring the use of four beaters – two in each hand. Needless to say, this requires a great deal of dexterity on the part of the performer, a task which Wasupon performed with confidence and technical agility.

The dance-like second movement is technically demanding and seemed to have Spanish and South American flavours, especially the extended section in which the strings repeat an insistent rumba rhythm to support partly improvisatory passages by the marimba. It was a remarkable virtuosic performance which the audience clearly appreciated.

The longest work on the programme was Beethoven’s Symphony No 3 in E flat, usually known by its nickname, The Eroica. It’s a significant work because while the structure is rooted in the classical style, Beethoven pushed to the limits in terms of expression, length and content. It marked the start of a new period in Beethoven’s writing and more importantly marked a new approach to composing.

Marimba player Wasupon Tarntira rehearses at Tiffany’s Show Theatre. (Photo/Peter Tresize)
Marimba player Wasupon Tarntira rehearses at Tiffany’s Show Theatre. (Photo/Peter Tresize)

The title page shows the handwritten title “Sinfonia Grande” and Beethoven started sketching out ideas for it in 1803. They were daring ideas too, often casting aside many musical conventions of the time. At its first performance in April 1805, the work must have been a cultural shock to the conservative Viennese audience. The symphony received a mixed reception. A Viennese newspaper review questioned its artistic value and referred to “strange modulations and violent transitions and …abundant scratching in the bass” and that “the endless duration … exhausts even connoisseurs”.

Beethoven evidently didn’t find the applause in Vienna particularly encouraging but he would have enjoyed the performance at Pattaya, because many members of the audience applauded enthusiastically after every movement. Conductor Hikotaro Yazaki confidently steered the orchestra through this difficult work which makes many demands on individual players, especially in the woodwind section.

Tiffany’s Show Theatre is an excellent venue, especially since its recent refurbishment, but the auditorium is not designed for classical music concerts. The dry acoustic is rather unforgiving and clearly reveals any errors that would normally pass unnoticed. The Beethoven symphony kicked off in great style yet the performance of the third movement was probably the most successful, with sprightly rhythmic playing from the strings and confident well-judged playing from the timpani. The last movement is a set of variations and it was well served by the young musicians who brought the symphony to a lively conclusion.