Letting Classical Music Bond


The Thailand Philharmonic Orchestra recently graced our shores to celebrate our nations’ diplomatic relations, and served up local favourites and Thai medleys.

The Thailand Philharmonic Orchestra (TPO) enchanted classical music lovers during its debut performance at the Dewan Sri Pinang last September, marking a momentous occasion for the performing arts scene in Penang. “This is the first time in our state’s music history that we are graced with a foreign national orchestra of such calibre,” says Datin Seri Irene Yeap, the chairperson of the Penang Philharmonic Orchestra (PPO).

The 120-member orchestra performed pieces by famed Russian composer Dmitri Shostakovich and the late Thai sovereign King Bhumibol Adulyadej (“No Moon” and “Hungry Men’s Blues”), as well as P. Ramlee’s “Getaran Jiwa” and “Hujan Di Tengah Hari” to the delight of Penangites. “I believe music unites people, and in order to enhance camaraderie among the people of Thailand and Penang, it is important that we perform the people’s music as well. So we arranged for Malay classics to be performed as a gift to our Malaysian friends,” says Dr Sugree Charoensook, the music director of the TPO. The concert is part of a series of events celebrating the 60th anniversary of diplomatic relations between Thailand and Malaysia.

Dr Sugree Charoensook.

The TPO’s presence in Penang, and in the broader sense Malaysia, has similarly opened up new avenues for cultural exchange. “There has been an exchange of musical talent between our two countries for some time now, albeit at a modest scale,” says Yeap. “PPO, as a community orchestra, has played host to a number of Thai musicians including the Yala City Municipality Youth Orchestra, classically trained singer Anchee and jazz extraordinaire Koh Mr Saxman. Likewise, Thailand has graciously invited our musicians to play alongside theirs on many occasions. Not only have such exchanges given the musicians the experience of playing in different venues, they have also provided the sharing of ideas and the long-term togetherness that leads to real bonding and morale-building. The TPO’s appearance in Penang is the most symbolic of such exchanges.”

According to Charoensook, the orchestra’s decision to perform in Penang was a long time coming. “Penang has always been one of my favourite cities, so it is only fitting that our first performance in Malaysia is in Penang. But more than that, unlike most philharmonic orchestras that are often lured to big, glamorous European cities because of fiscal commitments, TPO is more interested to perform domestically and regionally, particularly in smaller cities that tend to be overlooked, like Phuket, Yala and Penang. Many of these communities do not have the opportunity to experience an evening at the theatre as they lack the financial means; this is the group of audience we are trying to reach.”

A painting by Thai artist Dr Suchart Vongthong was auctioned off for RM30,000 at the concert, with the proceeds going to the PPO.

Formed in 2005, TPO is Charoensook’s brainchild. “I studied music at the University of Northern Colorado and graduated with a good-paying job. But when I turned 32, everything I was doing suddenly became meaningless. I had to ask myself what I wanted, and where I would be of most use. I wanted to stay in America, but America had no use for me – you could throw a rock anywhere in the US and hit someone with a doctorate in music. That’s why I decided to come back home, where my knowledge and skills could be appreciated. That was when I established the TPO.”1

Under Charoensook’s expert guidance, the orchestra flourished within a short period of time. It gave its inaugural performance at the Royal Thailand Navy Auditorium in 2005, in a gala concert for the International Trumpet Guild Conference. In 2009 the orchestra made its first international appearance at the Asian Orchestras Festival in Tokyo, and at the gala concert for the 15th ASEAN Summit. Renowned soloists like Jens Lindemann, Eri Nakagawa and Lambis Vassiliadis have regularly joined the TPO for performances as well.

Though some headway has been made for the performing arts scene in the South-East Asian region, Charoensook observes, “It is still discouraging to see the arts relegated to secondary status, or even as freebies. Administrators, at both the state and federal levels, are more partial to give importance to other sectors as they are convinced the arts contribute little to the well-being of society. This can’t be further from the truth – it is through the arts that we as human beings feel and connect with one another on a deeper level.”

To further cement the friendship between the two music fraternities, a painting by Thai artist Dr Suchart Vongthong was auctioned off for RM30,000 at the concert with the proceeds going to the PPO, bringing the evening to a memorable close.2

1 http://bk.asia-city.com/city-living/news/sugreecharoensuk- mahidol-university-college-music
2 http://www.thestar.com.my/metro/metronews/2017/09/14/concert-marking-ties-withthailand-a-triumph/

Regina Hoo is a Broadcasting and Journalism graduate from the University of Wolverhampton. She has a mania for alliteration and Oscar Wilde.

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