In my Bangkok apartment.
(Click on picture to enlarge).

Monday, May 28, 2012

FCCT Panel Answers the Question “Who are Rohingyas?”

Foreign Correspondents Club of Thailand. Bangkok. May 23, 2012. Nobody wants them. They are stateless. All three million of them. They are an ethnic, linguistic and Sunni Muslim minority group living in Burma (1,500,000 million) and the rest scattered in Bangladesh refugee camps, Malaysia and other Asian countries, including Thailand. Wherever they are, they are denied citizenship and are considered the lowest of the low. Although the Rohingyas have resided in Burma for generations, they have systematically been excluded from the life of the country. They flee Burma and Bangladesh because of human rights abuses, which are the source of their problems. In 2009, boatloads of Rohingyas escaping from Burma landed in Thailand on their way to Malaysia. They are towed out to sea by the Thai navy and cast adrift to die, which many did. The story of the Rohingyas as presented by the FCCT panel of experts, was one of unrelenting gloom, as was the documentary film screened before the panel discussion. Although the Rohingyas, sadly, don't make the news very often, when they do, I will be more informed about this abused and downtrodden ethnic minority, whose plight is largely in the hands of human rights organizations and private support groups, such as the Burmese Rohingya Association in Thailand, whose president was a panel member.

Thursday, May 24, 2012

Notos Piano Quartet Comes to Bangkok

The Notos Piano Quartet from Germany, included Bangkok on its Asian tour of Hanoi, Ho Chi Ming City, Jakarta, Surabaya, Phnom Penh, Rangun and Dhaka.

Goethe Institut. Bangkok, Thailand. May 21, 2012. Four young, vigorous, excellent musicians from Germany, who are touring Asia as the Notos Quartet, played to a full house at the auditorium of the Goethe-Institut Thailand, performing a program of Mozart (Piano Quartet No. 1), Joacquin Turina (Piano Quartet in A minor) and Brahms (Piano Quartet in G Minor). The Mozart and Turina were beautifully played, but the well-known Brahms quartet was outstanding, clearly a work to which the Notos Quartet was dedicated. Reflecting the young ages of the musicians (I would place them in their middle 20s), the Brahms was powerful, fast and exciting, but sensitive where called for. Simply put, it was beautiful music, the kind of performance that keeps me coming back to musical events in the hope of experiencing wonderful music beautifully played, an expectation only rarely fulfilled.

Wednesday, May 23, 2012

A Disappointing TPO Program

Polish violinist Marta Magdalena Lelek performed the world premier of Karl Fiorini's (b. 1979) Violin Concerto No. 2

College of Music, Mahidol University. Nakhonpathom, Thailand. May 19, 2012. The Thailand Philharmonic Orchestra is incapable of a bad performance, and Saturday's regular concert was no exception, but the program left a lot to be desired. The first half was occupied by the world premier of Violin Concerto No. 2 by the young contemporary Maltese composer, Karl Fiorini, who is destined to remain as unknown in the future as he is today. It was one of these musical contraptions that only make sense, if at all, to the composer himself and, possibly, the musicians performing it. In his program notes, Fiorini says "[This violin concerto]… is build on the three octatonic scales (alternation of tone/semitone intervals]…." With that explanation, you can well imagine what this one-movement composition sounds like. Playing this difficult work might have been good practice for the orchestra, but the benefit to the audience is less clear.

General Prem, President of the King's Privy Council and one of Thailand most respected and powerful men, attended the concert and presented the artists with flowers.

I've known Richard Strauss' longest tone poem, Ein Heldenleben, for my entire adult life, but not well, even though I've owned a CD version for as long as I can remember. In preparation for today's concert, I listened to this well-known work several times and felt well-prepared to enjoy a live performance by the TPO and its superb conductor, Gudni A. Emilsson, but, to my surprise, the TPO started at the middle of Ein Heldenleben, giving the audience half a loaf, which in the case of a comprehensive work like this, is not better than no loaf. Frankly, I never got over the disappointment I felt by being deprived of the first half of Ein Heldenleben, a programming choice which, I'm sure, has no precedent: orchestras don't dribble out great works of art in bits and pieces. A bright spot for me was the TPO's performance of Concert Overture by Karol Szymanowski, now regarded by many as Poland's greatest modern composer, an exciting work which is the only Szymanowski composition I've ever really liked.


A Beautiful Pianist Plays Beautifully

Goethe Institut. Bangkok, Thailand. May 18, 2012. Young-Hyun Cho, a Korean pianist now resident in Texas, played a beautiful program of Liszt, Debussy and Chopin. While her technique is very good, it was not quite strong enough for the always fiendishly difficult Liszt, but well within her grasp. Cho's Debussy "Estampes" were a dramatic change of pace, which she played nicely. After the intermission, Cho gave an idiomatic, truly beautiful performance of Chopin's Sonata No. 3. It is tempting to say that she has a special affinity for Chopin, which enables her to perform this Chopin sonata as well as many more famous performers do.

Tuesday, May 22, 2012

The Red Shirts Are At It Again

Bangkok, Thailand. May 19, 2012. I walked out of my soi on my way to a TPO concert at Mahidol Salaya campus, to run smack into a procession of Red Shirt demonstrators on their way to a rally at Ratchaprasong, to commemorate the two-year anniversary of their burning of Bangkok. This time, however, with their hero, Thaksin, firmly in control of the Thai government from his lair in Dubai, the 45,000 Red Shirts gathered peacefully and went home after their rally.

Sunday, May 20, 2012

Le Concert de Montreal

"Le Concert de Montreal" a group of early music specialists from McGill University in Montreal, delight their Bangkok audience

Siam Society. Bangkok, Thailand. May 14, 2012. I'm not a big fan of very early Baroque music of mostly unknown composers, played on period instruments, but based on what I heard from a group of six young musicians from Montreal's McGill University, I could easily change my mind. Calling themselves "Le Concert de Montreal," these early music specialists selected a group of eight rather short works from 17th century composers, who made their home in the Austrian court, although they were either Italian or influenced by Italian music, the earliest being Giovanni Battista Buonamente (b. 1595) and the latest Antonio Caldara (b. 1671). The success of the evening was due in large part to the careful selection of works played, which "Le Concert" performed with fluency and, clearly, a love of this period of music. The second half of the concert was more familiar, a Mozart divertimento and a Haydn string quartet. Prior to the formal concert, which was played without interruption, the group's harpsichordist, gave a detailed account and explanation of the music we were about to hear, which enhanced my enjoyment and appreciation of the music they played so well.


China’s Rise and America’s Return: Implications for South East Asia

Chulalongkorn University. Bangkok,Thailand. March 29, 2012. This public forum, consisting of presentations from one American and four Thai academics, was organized as part of the American Studies Program at Chula. One reason that I like listening to academics is that at least they have thought about what they say, which I contrast with the talking heads and public intellectuals infecting TV with their instant "analysis," sandwiched in between commercials, and the inanities of the host refereeing the show to produce as much contrasting blather as possible. I have entirely stopped watching these TV programs and feel more informed by their absence. 

That part of today's presentation dealing with China, i.e., its rise, needs no explanation, but America's "return" refers to the stated policy of the Obama administration, which was initiated, but less vigorously pursued by Bush, to emphasize Asia and, by implication, to attach less energy to the Middle East, is an important policy shift that has manifest implications for this part of the world, as well as America's position as  pre-eminent world power.    

(Above photo left to right)  Dr. Tiripol Phakdeewanich, Ubon Ratchanthani University; Dr. James DeShaw Rae, Sacramento State University, now teaching at China’s Foreign Affairs University; Mr. Robert Fitts, Director, American Studies Program at Chulalongkorn University;Dr. Prapat Thepchatree, Thammasat University; Dr. Surachai Sirikrai, Thammasat University.
In general, I would say that the views advanced at this forum fall into what is known as the "benign China" camp. Under this formulation, China has no ambitions to be a world power; but, yes, certainly a regional power. China has no interest in weakening the US such as by destroying our currency or economy, or weakening the beneficial security role that the US occupies in safeguarding the world, which works to China's benefit. Key to this view is that China and the US are economically interdependent and that China has no alternative to the US or to investing in dollar denominated financial assets. In short, although there are abundant ambiguities in the China-US relationship, including ambiguities and inconsistencies in China's foreign policies, under this "benign China" view, military or diplomatic conflict between the US and China are unlikely.

However, the speakers did not minimize the sources of current and potential conflicts and their impact on Asia and, indeed, the whole world, such as, US arms sales to Taiwan, US interference in South China Sea disputes between China and its neighbors, US and China spying on each other, and US military alliances in South East Asia. None of the speakers saw China and the US as potential allies, but rather as powers exercising influence in the world to their own advantages, without open conflict and with the possibility of cooperation in some areas. Underlying this view of world affairs is the assumption that we have passed from a uni-polar world to a multi-power world with no country being dominant, although the US will continue to be the preeminent global military power for the rest of this century.

Opposed to this somewhat optimistic view of China's rise and America's return, is the chool which views China as having already decided to unseat the US and to assume a dominant global role. Under this view, the US must prevent the further rise of China and view China as a threat, an enemy. This view underlies much of the rhetoric of US politicians and political races ("Obama is soft on China"), and envisions a replay of the cold war. The neocons hark this in the US and proclaim that every country in Asia must choose sides ("If you're not for us you're against us") and that Thailand, for instance, growing closer to China, as in fact it is doing, is anti-America, while ignoring the reality that the ASEAN nations have no choice other than drawing closer to China (China is now ASEAN's leading trading partner).

My personal view is that China most likely has no grand strategy to replace the US as the world's only superpower, and that the direction in which China proceeds, can be influenced by US policies and smart diplomacy. President Obama's very important speech to the Australian parliament in November, which heralded the US's return to Asia, is an important step in the right direction.







Wednesday, May 16, 2012

A Piano Recital by Simone Sala.

Italian pianist Simone Sala acknowledges the audience after his Bangkok appearance.

Goethe Institut.  Bangkok, Thailand.  May 11, 2012.  30-year old Italian pianist Simone Sala, gave what he said during opening remarks, was a recital divided into two parts:  a heavy part and a light part, and he invited the audience to determine what part they liked best.  The first half “heavy part” consisted of works by Scriabin, Rachmaninov and Chopin, plus a work by an unknown Russian composer A. Liauponov.  Sala is classically trained and has a big technique, but he lacks much of an understanding what it takes to play a classical work of music art.  His playing was heavy-handed, loud, and was characterized by a lack of phrasing, subtly and interpretation.  His right foot could very well have become numb from continuously holding down the pedal.  But, in the second half, during which Sala played his own works and those of George Gershwin and Ennio Morricone, he demonstrated that he is a pleasant and engaging entertainer, who would do very well in a cocktail lounge cabaret atmosphere, where his playing is persistently loud enough to be heard over the clatter of glasses and audience chatter. 


Tuesday, May 15, 2012

Do Taras Bulba and Sir Edward Elgar Have Anything in Common?

Taras Bulba is a Russian Cossack who, with his two sons, fought against Poland, and he’s the protagonist in a novella of that name by Nikolai Gogol.

College of Music.  Mahidol Salaya.  Nakhonpathom, Thailand.  May 5, 2012.  One hallmark of a Thailand Philharmonic Orchestra concert, is a varied program.  Although the programmers give each concert pair a name, this one being called “Taras Bulba,” a unified theme is often lacking, or the connection between the works being performed is tenuous at best.  This is all to the good because it guarantees that the orchestra does not have to make selections based upon some contrived plan (can you imagine what an all-Taras Bulba concert would sound like).  What we had, instead, were two major works:  Elgar’s cello concerto beautifully performed by Czech cellist Tomas Strasil, and Leos Janacek’s three movement tone poem (yes) Taras Bulba.  This exciting orchestral work, a first hearing for me, was conducted by Gudni Emilsson, the TPO’s chief conductor, who can be credited with creating Thailand’s finest orchestra, which never sounded better than it did during Janacek’s challenging score.  Also on the program was a new work by American composer-in-residence at Mahidol Salaya, James J. Ogburn, the most interesting aspect of which was the fact that his nine-month pregnant wife was sitting in the orchestra playing the bassoon.

Monday, May 14, 2012

Pianist Ernest So Introduces Unknown Composers

Hong Kong pianist Ernest So takes his bows after his Bangkok appearance.

Goethe Institut.  Bangkok, Thailand.  May 8, 2012.  Hong Kong pianist, Ernest So, who now also lives in NYC, introduced Bangkok’s small piano community to some mostly unknown composers, giving us Russian composer Sergei Bortiewicz (1877-1952), Azerbijanian Murad Kazhlayer (b. 1931), and Argentineans Jean Cras (1879-1932), Julian Aguire (1868-1924) and Carlos Guastavino (1912-2000).  So, whose English is perfect, talked about each composer, thereby turning the evening into a Keyboard Conversation, similar to what Jeffrey Siegel so wonderfully does.  So played nicely, with sufficient technique to make the recital musically, as well as educationally satisfying.  The two remaining Argentinian composers performed by So, Alberto Ginastera and Astor Piazzolla, are, of course, well-known, but So added interesting facts about them, completing his successful attempt to add meaning and enjoyment to composers and their works not regularly heard.

Thursday, May 10, 2012

A Lithuanian Tackles the Russians

Goethe Institut.  Bangkok, Thailand.  April 1, 2012.  Lithuanian-born, Moscow-trained pianist, Artas Balakauskas, performed a program consisting of two works:  Scriabin’s 24 Preludes and Prokofiev’s Sonata No. 8.  This would be considered an adventurous program on any recital stage in the world.  Balakauskas, a Bangkok resident, noted local piano teacher and occasional performer, provided me with my first live performances of these works, which I’ve had on CDs for many years, (the Scriabin by Pletnev and the Prokofiev by Richter).  He has my thanks.

Monday, May 07, 2012

Ti Foster's Smash Hit Opening

Bangkok. April 7, 2012. Ti Foster (above photo right), an internationally recognized English artist-photographer, who divides his time between London and Bangkok, held his first Bangkok gallery show, in which he displayed his stunning large photography works, which must be seen live in order to appreciate their artistry and beauty. I’ve known Ti for many years and have seen computer images of his works, but this was the first time I’ve viewed them for myself. It was a wonderful evening, a grand opening for an important artist.
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