Thai Orchestra Relieves Pressures of COVID-19 Lockdown with Musical Horror Film

Thailand has thus far been lucky in avoiding the level of COVID fatalities that other countries have seen.

But this has been achieved by imposing curfews, lockdowns and travel bans.The economic impact has been catastrophic, particularly in a country which depends on tourism. Tourism receipts have plunged 72.8%.

As in many countries, some of the groups most badly affected are those which are not seen as ‘vital industries,’ and these include the arts.

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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 by 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.

The results have been remarkable.

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, Bayreuth and earned many honors.

But 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.

Somtow was worried for his musicians. With universities and schools offering only on-line studies, venues shut, and bans on groups of 20 people, group practice was almost impossible.

By December, 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 for their mental well-being.

He expressed these concerns with his friend Paul Spurrier one day. Paul, a British-born filmmaker who has lived in Thailand for almost twenty years 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.

And then they 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 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?

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.

Paul pitched to Somtow 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. 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?

But Paul had one condition; Somtow must play the role of the Maestro himself. He 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 Paul 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 cult film ‘Adventures of Iron Pussy’, co-directed by Apichatpong Weerasethakul.

All agreed to take an enormous pay cut to support the project. The Goethe Institute allowed the orchestra to record in their hall.

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. Paul 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.

Paul says, “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.

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