A new generation of classical musicians find themselves torn between their economic dependence on Thailand’s elites and social demands for modernization.
For end-of-the-year celebrations, the Royal Bangkok National Orchestra resumed its concerts after a two-year break caused by pandemic restrictions. On the program for the first performance, they played Mozart, Shostakovich and original compositions of Thailand’s most famous conductor, Vanich Potavanich.
This was a great relief for the 83 musicians, who have had a hard time getting through the crisis as no government aid has been forthcoming to compensate for the lack of concerts.
“Apart from teaching music, they also have to find alternative sources of income,” Chot Buasuwan, lead violinist, said of Thai musicians, who normally find it difficult to earn a full-time living.
For example, Chot said he opened a small café with some friends, not far from the theater.
“Many musicians sold their instruments to survive during the pandemic crisis,” says Wynn Rapeedech, director of a recording studio in the suburbs of Bangkok. It was a real heartbreak for them.
The national orchestra is made up of very young musicians, most of them under 30.
“This is a new generation of classical musicians that is developing and growing,” says conductor Vanich. Talented young people who come to replace a generation sometimes arrived there through nepotism, which is widespread in the country.
“Until now, in the classical music world, it was between aristocratic families. We had to take drastic measures to ensure that only the best musicians were selected. Auditions to select members are now done blind,” Vanich explained.
“Each one attending the audition is kept behind a curtain so that the jury members can’t see them. There are no names, only numbers. This is the only way to achieve a true professionalization of the sector.”
In Thailand, the classical music scene has a close relationship with the aristocracy. Introduced by King Rama VI to the Siamese court at the end of the 19th century, symphonic music is still largely financed by the royal family, the country’s most important patron.
“The majority of concerts are organized for royal events,” said Chot. “For example, we often play at the fashion shows of Princess Sirivannavari, who is a fashion designer. The army, through its many military bands, represents the other main source of funding for orchestral music.”
Elements of economic reality complicate the lives of young musicians, while many support the generational groundswell that has challenged the privileges granted to the monarchy and elites in recent years. Thai students and their supporters are calling for reform of the monarchical institution, demanding changes to the constitution to restrict the military’s power and an overhaul of the education system.
By October 2020, the movement was gathering tens of thousands of young people every night in the streets of Bangkok, and 2021 was marked by sometimes violent demonstrations. But the anti-Covid restrictions and the systematic arrest of student leaders have taken their toll on the mobilization.
Young orchestral musicians find themselves in an uncomfortable position, torn between their economic dependence on the elites and demands for modernization of society. Basically, they agree with the rest of the youth, says Wynn.
“They are not more conservative than the others. But at the same time they depend on the royal family to survive, their speech is not free. The financial issue is all the more crucial in this period of health crisis. Thai musicians have a very strong survival instinct,” says Wynn.
With a small, self-conscious smile, violinist Chot says: “They want to make music first, and if they have to shut up to do that, they’ll shut up. For a while at least. We’re just trying to do our job as musicians as best we can, trying not to think about anything else.”
But on condition of anonymity, other members of the orchestra dare to say more. “Sometimes when we participate in projects sponsored by the royals, we ask to have our faces hidden if there are cameras. Because we’re a little ashamed, and we know we’re going to be criticized severely on social networks.”
Other styles of music have more visibly chosen their side. Morlam, a traditional musical form accompanied by string and wind folk instruments, has been producing fiercely political lyrics for decades. And its artists in the genre are now in jail for their involvement with students.
Thai rappers have released several hit songs, including “Prathet Gu Mii” (“This is My Country”), which became the anthem of the 2020 protests, decrying the impunity of the powerful who “preach morality with a crime rate higher than the Eiffel Tower,” “eat our taxes for dessert,” and “wipe out the constitution with their boots.”
But even if they take risks by criticizing the elites, the economic survival of these artists depends on the public.
Orchestral musicians, on the other hand, are still far from having developed an audience that allows them to do without aristocratic subsidies. The audience for classical music in Thailand is rare and aging.
“We want to attract a new audience, it’s vital for us,” says Vanich, the conductor.
In this spirit, the national orchestra plans to adapt traditional songs or even pop hits “so that the Thai people can appropriate the genre.”
Only then will symphonic music be able to expand its audience and gain artistic freedom and expression.
This story first appeared in UCA News, a Bangkok Herald partner.