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A trip down South

The Thailand Philharmonic Orchestra plays in Yala in the spirit of solidarity and encouragement

The set list of TPO's performance includes the late King Bhumibol's compositions and local tunes aside from traditional symphony. Melalin Mahavongtrakul

The audiences looked on eagerly as throngs of classical musicians from the Thailand Philharmonic Orchestra (TPO), all smartly dressed in black, slowly filed onto the stage of Yala Rajabhat University's auditorium. Once the men and women in black were seated, and the conductor flicked his baton, the first melody struck. The powerful sounds of Russian composer Dmitri Shostakovich's Symphony No.5 soon engulfed the hall, filled with locals of Thailand's southernmost province.

Yala is home to untainted nature and cultural diversity, though unfortunately the province is better known as one of the sites for the decade-long southern insurgency. Over years of unrest, there have been bombing attacks and shootings in the public area. Bunkers and soldiers' checkpoints can still be found across the city.

"Ever since the incident, people have rarely come to Yala," admitted Pongsak Yingchoncharoen, mayor of Yala. "Before, we would have groups coming to play sports and music. That's in the past now."

So it brought excitement to the locals once they learned that the TPO would be bringing its hundred musicians, soloists and staff members right into the heart of Yala for a free concert at the start of this month. The big musical troupe travelled via plane to Hat Yai, Songkhla province, where they spent another two hours on the bus before reaching Yala.

The concert was played on the same night the group arrived in town, with the performance -- under American conductor Delta David Gier -- starting with Shostakovich's 1937 work, which lasted about 45 minutes. During the show's second half, the music took a lighter turn with Narong Prangcharoen's Phenomenon, plus some local tunes arranged by Prateep Suphanrojn.

While the performance was remarkable enough without any vocals, it was obvious that the crowd's favourite was Cherryl Hayes, a jazz singer who livened up the stage with her vibrant energy and soulful voice. Her previous audiences have included the late King Bhumibol Adulyadej and HM Queen Sirikit.

Hayes performed three songs: No Moon and H.M. Blues, composed by King Bhumibol, plus George Gershwin's The Man I Love. She was also accompanied by saxophonist Krit Buranavitayawut.

"Here in Yala, I guessed that many were hearing an orchestra for the first time," said Gier, the conductor. "So we packed a wide variety of music, mixing traditional symphony with local tunes and some jazz numbers. The audience may find it surprising how powerful the sound is. It's quite an experience to have 90 people so focused on playing together and presenting this powerful music without amplification."

The night concluded with a loud cheer from audience members. The orchestra bid the southern crowd farewell. The next morning, everyone packed up their instruments to continue the journey further south, crossing the Thai-Malaysian border in Betong district and going on to the historic precinct of Penang. Another performance -- the 60th Anniversary of Thailand-Malaysia Diplomatic Relations Celebration Concert -- was scheduled for the following evening at Dewan Sri Pinang, an auditorium in George Town.

The Penang concert followed the same set list as the one in Yala, with local tunes changing to Malaysian traditional music to suit the crowd.

The TPO was founded in 2005, under the patronage of the Royal Thai Government and Mahidol University. This trip to the South made up part of the TPO's annual Asian tour concerts, aside from their weekly performances at Prince Mahidol Hall. In previous years, the group had performed in Laos, Myanmar, Malaysia, Japan and New Zealand.

In choosing Yala as this year's destination, Assoc Prof Sugree Charoensook -- TPO's music director and dean of Mahidol University's College of Music -- said that it was predominantly to show support and lift the spirit of the people in the southernmost provinces.

"People still largely consider Yala and its surrounding area a war zone. So we've brought our orchestra here to provide warmth and solidarity to the locals through the power and energy of our music," said Sugree. "We came to give them encouragement. There is really not much else we could do, but still we would like to help as much as we can, in the way that we can."

Sugree added that he mostly focused on giving performances domestically and regionally, rather than heading to Europe and other international destinations.

"What could we show them that they haven't already seen in Europe?" he asked. "But in Yala, people have never had a symphony coming here, and the entire province was excited about it. We aim to go further and wider within our own country so that our people have a chance to see and learn more about this kind of music."

Since 2003, Sugree has been collaborating with Mayor Pongsak in lending support for the establishment of the Yala City Municipality Youth Orchestra (YMO), which brings hundreds of local youths from different ethnic and religious backgrounds to play classical music together.

"They get to eat together, and play the same music in the same band. Then, they will grow to love one another," commented Sugree, hoping for classical music to be an instrument for peace in the region.

Nichapa Nilkaew, cellist. Melalin Mahavongtrakul

Mayor Pongsak said that there is now a plan to build a proper music school and auditorium in Yala to accommodate and further support aspiring musicians in the province. And with the TPO recently in town, their visit also served to provide encouragement and inspiration for local youths.

Gongphonp Saksawat, 14, a violinist at the YMO, said it was his first time seeing the TPO perform live and that he was very excited and happy that such a big orchestra had decided to come to his hometown.

"Like them, I hope to make music my career. I want to become a teacher and come back to teach music here," said the young musician. At the same time, he wished to have a chance to play with the TPO, adding that he may try for an audition in the future.

But coming to Yala wasn't beneficial to the locals alone. The musicians said they too received inspiration, in return.

For TPO's 24-year-old cellist Nichapa Nilkaew, the trip marked her first time in the land of insurgency. Admittedly she was at first nervous about coming, but once she arrived, she was in awe of the hospitality shown by the locals.

"The people were so welcoming and they took such great care of us," said Nichapa. "The sound of our music can be quite new to them. But they received it pretty well even if it was a kind of melody they don't always get to listen to. There's just no boundaries when it comes to music. It transcends. And people really understood the message we wished to convey."

Upon learning about the local youth orchestra, the cellist said she was very excited that there were so many kids -- like Gongphonp, for example -- interested in classical music despite the province not being too well-equipped for it.

"There is like one grand piano in this entire province, from what I know. I'm quite surprised by that," she commented, adding that she'd be interested in returning to provide lessons for the kids should opportunities arise in the future.

"I feel that those who have little opportunity can be very passionate, more so than those who have everything within reach," said Nichapa. "They consider every opportunity valuable. And these kids are very young. I think that with their potential, they can go very far with the right kind of support."


The Thailand Philharmonic Orchestra holds a regular concert at Prince Mahidol Hall on Mahidol University's Salaya Campus in Nakhon Pathom. Visit www.thailandphil.com.

Jazz diva Cherryl Hayes. Melalin Mahavongtrakul

Delta David Gier, conductor. Melalin Mahavongtrakul

The Thailand Philharmonic Orchestra performs in Yala as one of its Asian-tour concerts. Melalin Mahavongtrakul

Assoc Prof Sugree Charoensook, TPO's music director and dean of Mahidol University's College of Music. Melalin Mahavongtrakul

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