“Fusion in both cuisine & music is a dirty word”

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“Fusion in both cuisine & music is a dirty word,” quipped Leo Phillips, the featured speaker at the October 7 meeting of the Pattaya City Expats Club at the Amari’s Tavern by the Sea Restaurant, when asked what he thinks about the modern classical music scene.

Leo, a London-born, internationally acclaimed violin player and orchestra conductor, didn’t bring his violin or his baton to the meeting, but he did charm the audience with his wit and his obvious passion for good music.

‘Hawaii Bob’ Sutterfield draws the lucky names for the PCEC members’ draw for special deals in Pattaya’s better value restaurants. Bob is aided by Open Forum MC, Roy Albiston.‘Hawaii Bob’ Sutterfield draws the lucky names for the PCEC members’ draw for special deals in Pattaya’s better value restaurants. Bob is aided by Open Forum MC, Roy Albiston.

Leo said he feels that modern classical music has become too commercial, with the visual becoming more important than the aural for many young musicians.  “Marketing gets in the way, and the music can’t reach your soul,” said Leo.  As a result, you don’t get the same depth of experience.

Although he has worked with many legendary figures and performed with orchestras around the world, Leo said he is most proud of his work as a teacher, a role that he has embraced with gusto since relocating to Thailand in 2003.

“The most important lesson for a musician is learning how to listen,” said Leo.  But although he started playing violin at age five when his parents “stuck a violin under my chin,” and turned professional at age 17, he didn’t learn that lesson until some years later, when he studied with famed violinist and teacher Shmuel Ashkenasi in Chicago.  It was a humbling experience.  During his first session, Ashkenasi was reading his mail while Leo did his best to concentrate on playing a Mozart concerto.  When Leo finished, Ashkenasi said, “It’s unacceptable.  You’re out of tune.” The next week Ashkenasi said, “You’re a little better, but please don’t tell anyone you’re studying with me.”  Leo learned quickly after that.

Leo Phillips, featured speaker at PCEC’s October 7 meeting, said “Marketing gets in the way (of modern classical music), and the music can’t reach your soul.”Leo Phillips, featured speaker at PCEC’s October 7 meeting, said “Marketing gets in the way (of modern classical music), and the music can’t reach your soul.”

Leo says his main criticism for students today is that there are “flecks of dirt in their playing.”  He says you have to train yourself to hear the little scratch, the slight problem with intonation or tuning; it’s very simple to correct, but the key is that you have to learn to listen.  He said teaching has also given him much more insight into his own musical talents.

Leo said that although he enjoys performing with an orchestra, his real love has always been chamber music. The problem, he said, is that you don’t make much money playing chamber music, so he started supporting himself by leading orchestras as a guest leader.  But he said that as a guest leader, you’re not really part of the orchestra, and the other players are very suspicious of you.  He also played in movies like Gladiator and Philadelphia, but didn’t really like commercial work.  So about 10 years ago he decided to sell his violin and travel, supporting himself by teaching.

When he got to Bangkok a year later, someone asked him to do some work with young people.  The evening after his first performance with them, he bought a bottle of Chang beer in a 7-Eleven.  The bottle broke and cut his hand.  The next night the lead violin player died, and they asked Leo to take his place.  Luckily, the cut was in the one position that doesn’t bother his violin playing.

Since then, Leo has been performing and teaching in Thailand and elsewhere around Asia, Australia and New Zealand.  He started performing with the Galyani Vadhana Institute Orchestra in 2008, and was appointed the orchestra’s Principal Guest Conductor in March of this year.  He said a new concert hall recently opened at the Institute, but no concerts have been planned there yet.

Leo conducts the Galyani Vadhana Institute Orchestra.Leo conducts the Galyani Vadhana Institute Orchestra.

Leo also said that in the next few months he hopes to organize a small of group of musicians that can travel around and play in smaller venues such as Pattaya.  So hopefully he will be returning before long – with his violin.

After Leo’s presentation, Master of Ceremonies Richard Silverberg provided information on upcoming events and called on Roy Albiston to conduct the always informative and sometime humorous Open Forum where questions are asked and answered about Expat living in Thailand, recommendations for restaurants and movies are made, an and perhaps a joke or two are told.