Where there is imagination and determination, musicians can overcome even pandemic lockdowns.
A famous youth orchestra in Thailand was stuck in the pandemic — along with musicians everywhere — and the music director was worried about the young people’s frustration and mental health as they couldn’t perform, rehearse, or see each other during the lockdown. Unlike other music directors, Somtow Sucharitkul did something about the problem, even if it required making a horror film.
Along with writer/director Paul Spurrier, Somtow took advantage of an exception to pandemic restrictions. Spurrier explains: “We discovered a loophole: Rehearsals, performance, and recording were still legally permitted if part of a television or film production. The government wisely realized that the public might tolerate lockdown and even unemployment, but they would not stand being deprived of their nightly soap operas.
“And that’s how Thailand’s number one youth orchestra ended up making, performing, and starring in an homage to B horror movies.”
Why a horror movie? As it happens, the music director has long been fascinated by the genre and published the novel Vampire Junction almost four decades ago. He gladly wrote the screenplay and the score and starred as the conductor-turned-monster (not far from reality, he says), with Spurrier directing and editing and the orchestra starring and playing in it, without quarantine restrictions.
“My Dad was the head of the International Law Department at Golden Gate University,” Somtow says, “so my family lived for quite a while in the Bay Area. When I was writing more than working on music, I was a regular at the Bay Area convention scene. I did dabble in film a bit, directing a couple of low budget films, writing a script for Brian Yuzna and another for Roger Corman.”
The circumstances of The Maestro: A Symphony of Terror, according to Spurrier: “Thailand has thus far been lucky in avoiding the level of COVID-19 fatalities that other countries have seen. But this has been achieved by imposing curfews, lockdowns, and travel bans. The economic impact has been catastrophic, particularly in a country which depends on tourism. Tourism receipts have plunged 72.8 percent.
“As in many countries, some of the groups most badly affected are those which are not seen as ‘vital industries,’ and these include the arts.”
Somtow picks up the story:
When I sat around with Paul and we were grumbling about the general lack of work in both our main occupations, I didn’t realize I’d end up playing a madcap version of myself on screen. But Paul had seen a clip from my film The Laughing Dead, made over 30 years ago, in which I played an insane Mayan god sacrificing children in order to bring about the New Age while raspily complaining that he’d rather be an investment broker. That film was a bit of a mad folly, totally panned when it came out, but recently being rediscovered as a lost “cult classic” of the 1980s.
Paul said, ‘You know, that has got to be one of the wildest dark comedy scenes I’ve ever seen.’ Then he kept insisting that I should play the insane maestro in this film myself. ‘You’ll hardly have to act,’ he said.
One of the most interesting features of composing this film score (a score on this scale would normally be more expensive to produce than the budget of our entire film) was the idea that Paul had written out a detailed schema of certain scenes, with shots imagined down to the second — and I had to imagine these entire sequences and score them before a single frame of the film had been shot.
Doing this presupposes a level of collaboration between composer and director that hasn’t been seen since Hitchcock and Bernard Herrmann — and a level of trust, as well. Over 45 minutes of the wall-to-wall symphonic score was prewritten and recorded in this way, definitely a leap of faith.”
Somtow is known as the man who brought 300,000 people together to sing the Royal Anthem on the King’s birthday and as Thailand’s most prolific opera composer, but he also has an entirely different alter ego as S. P. Somtow, the author of the classic rock ’n’ roll vampire series Vampire Junction, and as creator of the Mallworld science-fiction series.
In the film, Somtow plays a frustrated composer whose career is in the doldrums and who cannot find an orchestra willing to perform his latest and greatest symphony. When COVID strikes, he lures the bored musicians to his country mansion, where he forms his own renegade orchestra. But as his genius crosses the line into madness, he becomes increasingly demanding, and it is all bound to end in tears.
Somtow found the idea intriguing: “After all, what composer wouldn’t dream of a captive orchestra whose members could not escape, and who could be physically punished when playing less than perfectly?” Originally, the idea for the title role came from Spurrier: “Somtow had to play the role of the Maestro himself. He is the only one person in the world with the musical pedigree and who could portray a character walking the fine line between genius and madness.”
With their connections, they also managed to bring into the project some of Thailand’s top actors: Vithaya Pansringarm starred with Ryan Gosling in Only God Forgives. Sahajak Boonthanakit will soon be seen as a main character in Ron Howard’s Thirteen Lives. David Asavanond took home the Thai Oscar for his chilling performance in Countdown. Michael Shoawanasai starred in a cult film co-directed by Apichatpong Weerasethakul.
All agreed to take “an enormous pay cut” to support the project, Spurrier says. Somtow insisted on providing pay to all musicians.
Musicians became actors during filming. Soprano Jirut Khamlanghan played the young Maestro’s abused mother. Concertmaster Phongphairoj Lertsudwichai plays a pianist who suffers the fury of the Maestro after he is caught playing “Chopsticks.” Takkamol Duangsawat is the harpist who has the gall to tell the Maestro that his harp parts are impossible to play.
At the same time, actors became musicians. David Asavanond had to learn how to conduct an orchestra, for his role as rival conductor Walter Paisley. Actors were given intensive musical training and musicians attended acting workshops.
Spurrier says, “We’ve all heard the stories of how a musician stood behind Alan Rickman and put his arms through the actor’s sleeves, so he could convincingly play the cello in Truly, Madly, Deeply. But we had a whole orchestra. We had to do it for real. At first, we noticed that the actors and the musicians kept to their separate groups. But as they realized that they had to form a cohesive group, the barriers broke down.
“Musicians helped actors to actually feel the music, and actors helped musicians to expose their personalities to the camera. We soon found that actors who had never listened to classical music found a new appreciation, and that musicians learned to project a confidence that may even benefit their future performances.”
Somtow established the Siam Sinfonietta in 2010 with the purpose of providing intensive professional training for young musicians. He says: “Unlike other youth orchestras which are seen as an extension to the educational syllabus, the Siam Sinfonietta is a performing orchestra which aims to introduce its members to the discipline and dedication required by a musical career.
“It has always remained fiercely independent, accepting members from all backgrounds, all educational qualifications, and all parts of the country. There is no lower age limit, the only requirement is talent. Each year auditions are held. Even incumbents must re-audition. And when members reach their 25th birthday, they must resign.
“The results have been remarkable. The orchestra won first place at the Summa Cum Laude International Youth Music Festival, and has performed at Carnegie Hall, Berlin, Prague, Bayreuth, earning many honors.”
Ambitions were sky-high for 2020 when everything came to a halt. The Sinfonietta had planned a big celebration of Beethoven’s birthday, completing the full cycle of 10 Mahler symphonies, and the latest installment of Somtow’s own operatic interpretation of the 10 lives of Buddha — all had to be canceled.
“But it was not just the missed opportunities that worried Somtow,” Spurrier says. “He sensed a growing malaise, boredom and depression amongst the young musicians. Where he had initially been concerned at the effect of lockdown on their musical development, now he worried for their mental wellbeing.”
Creating, rehearsing, and performing The Maestro didn’t make up for everything lost, but it provided a tremendous boost for everyone, the kind of relief now felt everywhere where musicians and audiences come together again.
As filming commenced, the biggest concern was that a third COVID wave was forecast. If the number of cases rose any higher, the production would be shut down. From an initial schedule of 18 days, the number of shooting days was cut to 14. Filming was completed shortly before the third wave did indeed hit in April.
The Maestro will now have to wait for the third wave to pass until it can be shown in cinemas. It will be the first Thai film to be released that was produced during the COVID period. It is also the first film ever to feature a full orchestral score performed by Thai musicians.
“But to us and the musicians, it will be best remembered as the project that enabled them to stretch their talents, exercise their musical muscles, and stay sane in the midst of COVID,” says Spurrier.