Reviews

Robert Markow on Somtow's Mahler 3
Extraordinary things are happening in Bangkok these days, and not just in politics. In the world of western classical music, many of them are being spearheaded by composer, conductor, opera director and one-man music factory Somtow Sucharitkul. Latest in Somtow’s enterprising ventures was the Thai premiere of Mahler’s gargantuan Third Symphony, which he conducted at Mahisorn Hall at the Siam Commercial Bank [headquarters] last Wednesday [July 20].
No single orchestra in Thailand is large enough to cope with the logistical demands of this 100-minute symphony, the longest in the standard repertory (first performed complete in 1902), so Somtow supplemented the Siam Philharmonic with members of the Siam Sinfonietta (both of which he founded himself in recent years) to create an ensemble of nearly one hundred instrumentalists. To these were added four choirs from three{?] countries, including, significantly, the Hanaciboys Choir from Olomouc, Czech Republic, the city where 22-year-old Mahler landed one of his first jobs as conductor.
The importance of the event was underscored by the presence of consuls from Austria and the Czech Republic, pop star Tikshiro, child abuse activist Khunying Supinda Chakrabandu, composer Bruce Gaston and TV celebrity Andrew Biggs. About 500 additional people enjoyed a performance that resounded with sincerity, commitment, energy and a solid understanding of the Mahler idiom.
It is gratifying to report that the overall level of the performance far surpassed what this listener was expecting. Not a single musician had ever played the work before, yet somehow, in just four rehearsals, Somtow had instilled in his forces the very essence of Mahler’s great hymn to nature and mankind, leading them with a sure sense of pacing and keen attention to the myriad instructional details in the score. Yes, there were some wrong notes and some out of tune chords. But these paled beside the almost continuous flow of magical moments: the powerful opening
THE NATION
World Opera Week 2009
Bangkok Opera's "World Opera Week" came to a tearful end last Thursday night with a moving performance of La Boheme by a cast that was carefully assembled by artistic director Somtow Sucharitkul from three continents.

The festival opened on November 15 with an improvised "Alien Opera" at the Bangkok Art and Culture Centre, in which Bruce Gaston and Somtow concocted a sensuous cacophony that was curiously comprehensible despite being designed to be "as alien as possible".
Two previews followed, one at the Settrade Auditorium and the other at the German Embassy-hosted "Fest der Deutschen" at Shangri-La Hotel. The event also included a Thailand premiere - a newly discovered Ave Maria composed by Puccini that was recently found in Puccini's house and brought to Bangkok by tenor Israel Lozano and performed "fresh off the plane". Both previews featured extensive excerpts from Gaston's opera, On November 23, the festival opened with a highly charged performance of Beethoven's Symphony No. 9, This performance, conducted by Somtow, showcased the nine-year-old Siam Philharmonic Orchestra, which has emerged as the orchestra to watch in the region, with its youthful passion and European sense of style.
La Boheme was the main feature of the festival, and the small but discriminating audience for the two performances was blown away.
Some of the opening-night audience members commented that they had been mysteriously transported to London or Milan or New York without ever having to leave the Thailand Cultural Centre.
2009 was a breakthrough year for Thailand's only international opera company, with the Asian premiere of Thais earlier in the year and now this Boheme, with a perfect cast gathered from a dozen countries, and an orchestra that responded idiomatically to every nuance of the tricky Italian style. The surprise of the week was the debut of Thai soprano Zion Daoratanahong as Musetta on the same stage as internationally known opera stars
The Bangkok Post
Ayodhya from Opera Magazine
It was billed as “a Ramayana for the twenty-first century,” but in many ways it is a throwback to nineteenth-century grand opera. It is rich in visual splendor, includes roles for nearly every voice type from basso profundo to coloratura soprano, features stirring choral numbers, and requires a large orchestra including triple woodwinds, 5 harps, sitar, gongwongs (Thai temple bells) and celesta. It may be the only score in existence to employ both Wagner tubas and harpsichord. Arias, duets and ensembles are distributed strategically throughout. Unlike so many contemporary operas, Ayodhya is gratifying to the voice, with much lyrical writing that conforms to the meter and stress of the words. Stylistically, the score might be seen as Die Frau ohne Schatten and Arabella meet Star Wars and Lord of the Rings, with a rich overlay of Indian ragas and Balinese scale patterns. “I like to think of it as something Strauss might have written after spending a week in Bali,” says Somtow. Expanded tonality and frequent, abrupt, (again, much like Strauss) inform the score. And to carry the Straussian analogy a step further, Ayodhya is knit together from a large family of leitmotifs.

Most impressive were John Ames as Ravan, a bass of extraordinary range (Somtow tailored his role to include an A below the staff), Marina Zyatkova in a spectacular display of coloratura as the Golden Deer, and Thailand’s own Saran Suebsantiwongse as the splendid-voiced Hanuman. Michael Chance, Somtow’s school chum from their days at Eton together, sang the male alto role of Ganesha with spellbinding beauty of voice. Somtow’s libretto was entirely in English, but Thai translation was provided on side screens. The 80-piece Royal Jubilee Orchestra was assembled from no fewer than twenty orchestras, ensembles and schools in Thailand, Taiwan, Great Britain and the U.S. The chorus, sixty strong, sang feebly but looked sensational, decked out in riotously colorful costumes.
Opera Magazine - London
Ayodhya - from Opera News
Bangkok Opera may be just six years old, but it has already accomplished more than companies many times its age. Founded by present director Somtow Sucharitkul, it has mounted operas ranging from chamber works like Dido and Aeneas and Turn of the Screw to full-blown productions of Madama Butterfly and Turandot. Among other ventures, it has embarked on a Ring cycle (Das Rheingold was presented last February; Die Walküre is due in July), the first to be fully staged and produced by an Asian company. Bangkok Opera is the only company in southeast Asia operating with a full season (five productions per year). Last November it gave its third world premiere – three performances of Ayodhya (seen November 16, 18 & 19) by Somtow, who is both Thailand’s leading classical composer and its first to write a western-style opera (Ayodhya is his third).

In Ayodhya, billed as “a Ramayana for the twenty-first century,” Somtow has attempted to compress the famed Indian epic into about two and a half hours of music with two intermissions. explains Somtow, putting an eastern twist on an essentially Homeric tale. Audience members who know their Ramayana are at a distinct advantage over those who don’t, as the plot unfolds episodically and there are gaps in the English-language libretto’s story line.

Yet this defect pales beside the grandeur of Somtow’s achievement. “I wanted to open up the world of the Ramayana to a new generation of young people who know nothing of Thailand’s venerable past,” explains Somtow. Despite inevitable technical mishaps associated with a new production, Ayodya remains in this writer’s memory as a work greater than the sum of its parts, a feast for both the eye and the ear, a throwback to the era of grand operas that featured stirring choruses, theatrical effects, lavish costumes, big voices, sumptuous orchestration, lyrical melodies and an aura of magic.
Opera News (New York)
Ken Smith on "Mae Naak"
The Bangkok Opera, which opened its first full season in September 2004, is the kind of company one would usually call a mom-and-pop operation, except in this case there’s only a pop. Formed in 2001 by the Thai-born composer and author Somtow Sucharitkul, who has spent a lifetime reconciling his Asian heritage and his Eton-Cambridge education, the company was born of the same cultural tension that has fuelled its founder’s art. Somtow, who extended the sonorities and techniques of traditional Thai instruments as a Boulez acolyte in the 1970s, turned to writing genre fiction in the 1980s, when his westernized fantasist’s eye gradually rediscovered Thailand’s rich folklore. With his latest musical incarnation in the 1990s as a neo-Romantic, those two creative sides have now fused together on the operatic stage.

Mae Naak, Somtow’s second opera based on a Thai theme, was billed in the local English-language press as “Thailand’s most famous ghost story”, though the result on stage was rather more complicated.

While Somtow’s libretto bends this traditional tale to modern sensibilities, using flashbacks and other cinematic conventions, his music comes squarely from the opposite direction, stretching a post-Wagnerian Germanic language eastward. The composer’s unassuming description in the programme note – essentially, “Thai folk music meets the Hollywood horror movie soundtrack –” was fine for Bangkok’s bndding audiences, though more experienced opera listeners could follow a few shrewd brushstrokes of Berg and Bartók.

Little in either the cast or production, however, detracted from the presence of Nancy Yuen, the Hong Kong-born, London-based soprano for whom the title role was written. Though she could deftly negotiate spans of more than an octave in a single phrase, Yuen was often more effective on a single pitch, investing each moment with a range of timbre that communicated on the surface an exquisite emotional depth.

Opera Magazine - London
A Thai's Grand Design for Opera
BANGKOK— The premieres of new operas are fairly rare and often grand occasions around the world, but a recent debut here was an Asian undertaking with little precedent.

A local opera company has never before been assembled in Bangkok. "Madana" was the first opera written by a Thai, the Los Angeles-based composer Somtow Sucharitkul, who is best known as an author of science fiction. It was based on an innovative 1920s play by King Rama VI, who dedicated the drama to one of his wives, Queen Indrasaksachi, a great-aunt of Somtow.

None of this is as unlikely as it seems, Somtow says. "Opera and the arts in general are looking to the East. People run out of new ways to say things, so they start to ransack another culture." "Madana" is just part, he says, of a wave of Oriental influence on Western music.

Somtow attracted many believers — a cast including almost all of Thailand's operatic talent as well as several American singers. He recruited Thailand's top stage director and got sponsors like the Ford Foundation, Mercedes-Benz and the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization. CD and video releases are planned. So is a touring production. Thai high society rose to the occasion, snapping up all the $117 tickets for the gala performance, attended by Princess Galyani Vadhana, the sister of King Bhumibol Adulyadej, and about 70 Somtow fans flew in from the United States. Opera Now magazine called it "one of the operatic events of the year."

But this is only the beginning, if Somtow has his way. His lifelong dream is to set up a permanent opera company in Thailand, using the new production as the first step.

New York Times
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Radio

Sucharitkul: Requiem for the Mother of Songs
Sucharitkul: Symphony no 5
na Patalung: Eternity
Sucharitkul: Ayodhya
Sucharitkul: Mae Naak
Sucharitkul: Madana
Sucharitkul: Madana
Sucharitkul: Madana
Sucharitkul: Symphony no 4 "Pridi Symphony"
Ravel: Le tombeau de Couperin
Strauss: Four Last Songs, AV 150
Sucharitkul: Requiem: In Memoriam 9/11
Mahler: Symphony no 4 in G major
Sucharitkul: Avatar: Divertissement from "Madana"
Sucharitkul: War Dance from "Madana"
Sucharitkul: Nightmare from "Mae Naak"
Sucharitkul: Fire Music from "Ayodhya"
Sucharitkul: Kaki
Mahler: Symphony no 9 in D major
Sucharitkul: The Silent Prince
Sucharitkul: Gongula 3
Mahler: Symphony no 5 in C sharp minor
Mahler: Symphony no 7 in E minor
Haydn: Symphony no 102 in B flat major, H 1 no 102
Haydn: Symphony no 104 in D major, H 1 no 104 "London"
Mahler: Symphony no 6 in A minor "Tragic"
Sucharitkul: Requiem for the Mother of Songs
Sucharitkul: Reya - The Musical