By Paul Spurrier
The Siam Sinfonietta is an award-winning youth orchestra in Bangkok, Thailand known for its progressive and sometimes controversial approach. It has performed in Carnegie Hall, Berlin and Prague. A rather unusual story developed when COVID lockdowns made public performance and even rehearsal illegal. Although Zoom meetings work well for many things, they don’t work very well for an orchestra.
Concerned for the mental health of his young musicians, orchestra founder Somtow Sucharitkul discussed their plight with me, since I am a film-maker and we discovered a path. Rehearsals, performance and recording were still legally permitted if it was used for television or film production.
And that’s how Thailand’s number one youth orchestra ended up making, performing and starring in an homage to B Horror Movies.
About Siam Sinfonietta
The Siam Sinfonietta was established in 2010 by Thailand’s renowned composer Somtow Sucharitkul to provide intensive professional training for young musicians. Unlike other youth orchestras which are seen as an extension to the educational syllabus, the Siam Sinfonietta is a performing orchestra which aims to introduce its members to the discipline and dedication required for a musical career.
It has always remained fiercely independent, accepting members from all backgrounds, all educational qualifications, and all parts of the country. There is no lower age limit – the only requirement is talent. Each year auditions are held. Even incumbents must re-audition. And when members reach their 25th birthday, they must resign.
Remarkably, two years after its launch, the orchestra won first place at the Summa Cum Laude International Youth Music Festival. In the years since, the orchestra has performed at Carnegie Hall, Berlin, Prague, and Bayreuth, earning many honours.
Of course, in 2020, that all stopped. The Sinfonietta’s celebration of Beethoven’s birthday, its plans to complete the full cycle of 10 Mahler Symphonies, and the latest installment of Somtow’s own operatic interpretation of the ten lives of Buddha – all had to be cancelled.
With universities and schools offering only on-line studies, venues shut, and bans on groups of 20 people, group practice was almost impossible, and Somtow worried about his musicians.
By December 2021, the orchestra had not performed for more than six months. But it was not just the missed opportunity for practice that worried Somtow. He sensed a growing malaise, boredom and depression amongst the young musicians. Whereas he had initially been concerned at the effect of lockdown on their musical development, now he worried about their mental well-being.
Somtow, a friend, expressed these concerns to me one day. I am a British-born film-maker who has lived in Thailand for almost twenty years and had similar tales of woe to tell, of technicians who had not worked in months, of actors who could no longer find an audience, of equipment companies with millions of dollars of equipment sitting idle.
Then we realized that while it was actually illegal for groups of musicians of over 20 to gather, the government had recently permitted larger groups of performers to gather when in the production of a television program or film. (The government wisely realized that the public might tolerate lockdown and even unemployment, but they would not stand being deprived of their nightly soap operas).
The Siam Sinfonietta could rehearse, perform and record if it was part of a film production. But what sort of film could combine the talents, skill and efforts of the young musicians of Thailand and the film community?
Somtow Sucharitkul, while often known as the man who brought 300,000 people together to sing the Royal Anthem on the King’s Birthday, and Thailand’s most prolific opera composer, has an entirely different alter-ego as S.P. Somtow, the author of the classic rock-and-roll vampire series ‘Vampire Junction’, and the creator of the ‘Mallworld’ science-fiction series.
I pitched the idea of ‘The Maestro’ – a B-movie homage – the tale of a frustrated composer whose career is in the doldrums and who cannot find an orchestra willing to perform his latest and greatest symphony to Somtow. When COVID strikes, he lures the bored musicians to his country mansion, where he forms his own renegade orchestra. But as his genius crosses the line into madness, he becomes increasingly demanding, and it is all bound to end in tears.
Somtow found the idea intriguing. After all, what composer wouldn’t dream of a captive orchestra whose members could not escape, and who could be physically punished when playing less than perfectly?
I had one condition; Somtow must play the role of the Maestro himself. I insisted that there was only one person in the world with the musical pedigree and who could portray a character walking the fine line between genius and madness.
Unfortunately, since the Sinfonietta’s concerts had dried up, so had funding and sponsorship. To make ‘The Maestro’, Somtow had to make many phone calls to his most dedicated supporters. He had always insisted that the Sinfonietta should operate as a professional orchestra, and he insisted that all participants in ‘The Maestro’ should receive a fee, however small. The project was given a boost when I also made some calls to Thailand’s top actors. Vithaya Pansringarm starred with Ryan Gosling in ‘Only God Forgives’. Sahajak Boonthanakit will soon be seen as a main character in Ron Howard’s ‘Thirteen Lives’. David Asavanond took home the Thai Oscar for his chilling performance in ‘Countdown’. Michael Shoawanasai starred in the cult film ‘Adventures of Iron Pussy’, co-directed by Apichatpong Weerasethakul.
All agreed to take an enormous pay cuts to support the project. The Goethe Institute allowed the orchestra to record in their hall. The Siam Sinfonietta could rehearse, perform and record if it were in the production of a film. But what sort of film could combine the talents, skill and efforts of the young musicians of Thailand and the film community?
It was clear from the start that the music would be vitally important. Somtow would have to write and record the movement of the Maestro’s Symphony that he eventually performs before those scenes could be shot. This led to an unusual decision – to record the entire musical soundtrack of the film – over an hour of music – before the film started production.
This required a level of collaboration between director and composer that Somtow thinks is unprecedented. I created charts with descriptions of the scenes that had not yet been filmed, and with timings of the actions in the film. Somtow had to effectively score the film to a timed edit – except that edit existed only on paper.
Musicians became actors. Soprano Jirut Khamlanghan played the young Maestro’s abused mother. The orchestra’s concertmaster Phongphairoj Lertsudwichai plays a pianist who suffers the fury of the Maestro after he is caught playing ‘Chopsticks’. Takkamol Duangsawat is the harpist who has the gall to tell the Maestro that his harp parts are impossible to play.
And actors became musicians. David Asavanond had to learn how to conduct an orchestra, for his role as rival conductor Walter Paisley. Actors were given intensive musical training and musicians attended acting workshops.
I said, “We’ve all heard the stories of how a musician stood behind Alan Rickman and put his arms through the actor’s sleeves, so he could convincingly play the cello in ‘Truly, Madly, Deeply’. But we had a whole orchestra. We had to do it for real. At first, we noticed that the ‘actors’ and the ‘musicians’ kept to their separate groups. But as they realized that they had to form a cohesive group, the barriers broke down. Musicians helped actors to actually feel the music, and actors helped musicians to expose their personalities to the camera. We soon found that actors who had never listened to classical music found a new appreciation, and that musicians learned to project a confidence that may even benefit their future performances.”
As filming commenced, everyone’s biggest concern was that a third COVID wave was forecast. If the number of cases rose any higher, the production would be shut down. From an initial schedule of eighteen days, the number of shooting days was cut to fourteen. Filming was completed shortly before the third wave did indeed hit in April.
‘The Maestro’ will now have to wait till the third wave passes until it can be shown in Thai cinemas.
It will be the first Thai film to be released that was produced during the COVID period.
It is also the first Thai film ever to feature a full orchestral score performed by Thai musicians.
But to Somtow Sucharitkul and the Siam Sinfonietta, it will be best remembered as the project that enabled them to stretch their talents, exercise their musical muscles, and stay sane in the midst of COVID.
Photos are courtesy of “The Maestro”