Playing Beyond the Barriers
What better way to spend a Friday night than by getting a front and center seat to watch an orchestra concert? As Carolina Southeast Asia Summer Program participants, we had the chance to do just that. The Thailand Philharmonic Orchestra, composed of musicians from more than 15 countries, and supported by the Royal Thai Government (i.e., the king) and Mahidol University College of Music, presented “Amazing Rachmaninov” to a spellbound audience July 6-7. Luckily for us, the orchestra routinely performs at Mahidol University’s Music School, which is just a short walk from the on-campus hotel where we are living.
Before the concert even began, we were treated to the orchestral playing of the national anthem. We stood to honor country and king. Interestingly, in Thailand the national anthem is played a lot more often than in the ballpark and at Independence Day celebrations. Students at Mahidol University stop midstride twice a day (at 8 a.m. and 6 p.m.) to pay respect to their country. And if you take a casual trip to the movie theater to watch The Amazing Spider Man, you’re still not exempt from standing to watch a montage of photographs of the royalty’s interactions with locals, set to the national anthem. I’ve never been so moved by any anthem — and I’m rather partial to our Star-Spangled Banner — than I was by the 90-piece orchestra rendition of the Thai anthem.
The everyday playing of the national anthem is just one of the many differences of Thailand to which we’ve grown accustomed over the past few weeks. One aspect that we’ve had more difficulty with is the language barrier. None of the 26 program participants speak Thai, except of course for a few essential words, like “sà-wàt-dee kah,” (“hello”), “kob kun kah” (“thank you”), and, perhaps most importantly, “mai pet” (“not spicy”). So you can imagine our relief to sit in an auditorium, enjoying the luxury of not having to communicate at all.
After the anthem, we settled into our seats — I was four rows from the front, dead center stage — to enjoy the renowned flute soloist, Giuseppe Nova, who, according to my program notes, has been called “one of the most outstanding Italian flutists of his generation,” play Saverio Mercadante’s Flute Concerto in E minor, Op 57. The notes carried me away to a spring day far from the hot and sticky climate of Thailand. The soloist received such enthusiastic applause that we were treated to an encore before the program was even over. Even without the flutist for Sergei Rachmaninov’s Symphony No. 2 in E minor, Op. 27, the concert continued in style. I was carried away with the energy and strength of the strings section. One cellist played with such ardor that his strings continually popped off during the rendition.
When the concert was over, the evening was not. Both the conductor and the soloist headed to the front lobby to meet with audience members and to sign the programs of excited school children (and UNC students). With stars in our eyes, we could not stand to admit that the evening was over. (After all, we were heading into the concluding week of the program, which meant we were staring into the angry eyes of final exams, projects and papers, making relaxation and procrastination that much more appealing.)
Dr. Tsin, the instructor of this year’s SEAS program, offered to take us out for coffee. But in Thailand most coffee shops are closed by 10 p.m., so Dr. Tsin joked that he could take us to the 7/11 instead. But Dr. Tsin wasn’t too far off. We headed to the 24-hour campus Tops Daily, where we enjoyed Walls ice cream cones and reminisced over our evening filled with classical music.
Before we attended the concert, we’d wondered about what type of music we’d hear. We knew it would be a classical concert, but we didn’t know the composers, and we wondered if we’d have the chance to hear classical Thai music. The first composer was Italian and the next was Russian. So we didn’t get a taste of classical music endemic to Thailand, but that didn’t mean that we missed out. After all, no two performances are the same. And I’m fairly confident that if I’d been in a music hall in Italy or Russia, I’d have been treated to a rather different rendition. And I’m absolutely certain that I would not have been asked to stand to honor country and king, been treated to a mid-concert encore or gotten the highly valuable signatures of both conductor and soloist. But most of all, I came away with an appreciation of the beauty of music — especially classical orchestral music — for it can be understood and enjoyed by all, even years after it was first composed, no matter your nationality, language or culture.
Emily Palmer, a rising junior global studies and creative writing student from Durham, is an intern for the Carolina Alumni Review. She is blogging for the Review and wants to hear about your can’t-miss experiences while at Carolina.