Why Somtow Sucharitkul Brought the ‘Tar’ Thai Orchestra Back to Oldenburg
Last year, it was just a lark.
For its 2021 event, Oldenburg Film Festival invited Somtow Sucharitkul, one of Thailand’s most acclaimed classical composers and conductors, to the world premiere of The Maestro, a Thai horror film starring Somtow as a murderous conductor. “Some would call it typecasting,” jokes Somtow, who also wrote the film’s script.
But instead of just coming for the red carpet, Somtow invited members of his youth orchestra, the Siam Sinfonietta — which performs in The Maestro — to join him. Together they wowed the crowds at the festival’s opening and closing ceremonies, performing music from the film, as well as a tribute to Oldenburg’s 2021 guest of honor, Italian genre master Ovidio Assonitis (Tentacles, Beyond the Door).
“The kids had never seen anything like it, coming to Oldenburg just opened the door to a whole other universe for them,” says Somtow. “When they came back, they were telling the rest of the orchestra how amazing it was. So, I was looking for an excuse to come back.”
Somtow found his excuse in a convenient anniversary. 2022 marks 160 years since Germany and Thailand first started diplomatic relations, a jubilee the conductor managed to leverage into a series of concert dates throughout Germany, ending — you guessed it — with two performances in Oldenburg.
The Siam Sinfonietta, all 50 members this time, not just the 25 that came last year, opened the 2022 Oldenburg Film Festival Wednesday night, playing a tribute to the music of 1977 sci-fi classic Capricorn One, in honor of Capricorn director Peter Hyams, the subject of this year’s Oldenburg retrospective.
But the members of the 2022 Sinfonietta are not the same ingénues of last year’s festival. Shortly after returning from Oldenburg, the Thai orchestra got its first big film gig: performing in Todd Field’s classical music drama Tár starring Cate Blanchett. The orchestra is seen in the film’s closing scenes and acts as a powerful dénouement to Field’s epic work.
“The kids [of the Sinfonietta] have really had an amazing year,” Somtow notes, “and it started with this weird and wonderful experience in Oldenburg.”
For this year’s finale performance, Somtow and the Siam Sinfonietta will perform a tribute to the music of Bernard Herrmann, the legendary composer who came up with the low woodwinds that open Citizen Kane (1941), the screaming violins that terrify in Psycho (1960) and haunting saxophone that reflects the inner turmoil of Travis Bickle in Taxi Driver (1976).
Somtow said Herrmann’s music was the soundtrack of his childhood. “My mother couldn’t afford a babysitter, so when I was very little, she sat me in front of the TV and played these movies, including Vertigo and Psycho,” he recalls. I think I saw Psycho eight times when I was very, very young. The music had a tremendous impact on me.”
Reflecting on Herrmann’s influence on film music, Somtow notes that he “invented so many things that we now take for granted in film music. [All] film composers use light motifs to represent different characters, but he was the first to do that in a symphonic way, so you can actually close your eyes and hear the whole movie and know exactly what it is and know the emotions of the film.”
Somtow is particularly eager to interpret Herrmann’s 1946 score to Anna and the King of Siam. “Bernard actually drew his inspiration from Indonesian and Balinese music, not Thai, so the music sounds as alien to Thai people as it does to Western audiences,” he says. “It’s pretty wild. And very, very interesting.”
The members of the Siam Sinfonietta did not grow up with Bernard Herrmann films as a babysitter, so Somtow said he had to find a way to impress on them the impact Herrmann’s music, and the films they accompanied, had on audiences at the time.
“I’d tell them: this piece of music that you’re playing now, this was the first time a woman with a black bra was ever seen in a film. Or this accompanied the first-ever shot of a toilet being flushed on screen,” he says. “Their eyes just opened wide: it was like magic.”
Somtow and the Siam Sinfonietta are looking to recapture a bit of that magic in Oldenburg for their grand encore performance.
“Oldenburg is really like nothing else,” says Somtow. “I just feel really comfortable here, really at home. As soon as I left, I was looking for an excuse to come again.”
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