An Asian Slant

The Nation, one of Thailand’s English-language newspapers, ran a review of the Mahler 3 performance which took place in Bangkok recently. It contained the curious assertion that the use of a male voice to sing the solo usually ascribed to a female gave the event a uniquely Thai slant, the idea being that the Thais have a particular fondness for cross-gender; after all, this is the land of the lady-boy. The review was written by a Canadian music critic passing through Bangkok, so perhaps it seemed from his angle a clever observation to make and he didn’t really think through the somewhat offensive way the comment could be read. But there was a hint – no more than that – that the comment had actually been made by the Thai conductor, in which case such a decision has rather more serious implications.

I’ve noticed a tendency for Asian orchestras to try and find some “local” slant to the performance of western works. I remember years ago the MPO performing a piece by the Belgian Flor Peeters in which the Latin text was replaced by one in Malay. It seemed quite a good idea at the time, but I realised that if anyone had actually heard the words – which I doubt since the organ, brass and drums were all going away at it like the clappers, drowning out the poor choir – they might have found it all vaguely ridiculous and, possibly, an affront to Malaysian sensitivities. Then there was the infamous attempt by the SSO to sing Mahler’s Lied eines fahren gesallen in Cantonese; a performance which showed pretty conclusively that Mahler knew exactly what he was doing when he set his texts in German. (Remarkably, BIS even recorded the performance and, if you want, you can hear what a nonsense it all is by buying the disc.)

The only successful “Asianisation” of a western masterpiece (and put that phrase in your pipe and smoke it) is in opera. Back in 1997 the Hong Kong Academy of Performing Arts staged Così fan Tutte in a performance which cleverly reflected the Hong Kong of the time, complete with handover celebrations as the place reverted to Chinese rule.

I wonder why there is perceived to be a need to do this sort of thing. I can, perhaps, see the point in opera when to set it in a context rather more familiar to the audience can help the appreciation of the plot, but with abstract music, does such “localisation” serve any purpose? Perhaps it even does some damage in that, as with the Thai male alto (I know that’s tautology, but few even in the musical world are aware of it), it alters the composer’s vision for the work. It may alter it for the better – as our Canadian critic seemed to suggest – but it alters it all the same, and I don’t think that’s a good idea at all.

There’s a hoary old cliché about music being an “international language”. Like all hoary old clichés it’s got a grain of truth about it, and certainly it should rise above national interests to the extent that it can be appreciated away from its home turf. Elgar, the quintessence of Edwardian England, works quite nicely in Singapore, Malaysia and even non-former-colonial Thailand, without the need to “Asian” it up. Shostakovich goes down a bomb with Australians for whom the Communist Party to which he subscribed (despite the best endeavours of his apologists to deny this truth) is an anathema, and they don’t see the need for a conductor wearing corks round his dry-as-a-bone to prove that this is non-Commie Oz. Even in drug and sex crazed Amsterdam, I’ve never seen The Seasons performed by a coke-sniffing tart (although, come to think of it, it has come pretty close at times).

It shouldn’t be such a novelty that, here in south east Asia, we can do western classical music just as well as the Europeans. We certainly shouldn’t try to disguise the fact. The MPO could wipe the floor with most European and American orchestras, while both the SSO and HKPO equal, sometimes better, a great many of them. The Siam Philharmonic – a scratch body created just for the Bangkok Mahler 3 – might not be in the same league, but they don’t have to resort to gimmicks to be taken seriously. I hope the Canadian critic was just having fun with a natty nuance – I certainly wish I’d thought of it – but it does have a serious side. Asian orchestras must not slip into the habit of belittling their efforts in performing core western repertoire because of a wholly incorrect belief that they can never do it quite so well as the Europeans; if anything, an awful lot of them do it better.

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August 2010


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