“When people say classical music is difficult to listen to because there isn’t an explicit meaning, I think they’re overthinking it. Music has always been about enjoyment — if it excites you and makes you smile, do you really need to know what it’s about?” — Conductor Vanich Potavanich.
Thailand has come a very long way from the days when classical music was reachable only by a niche group of society’s upper elite. Today, while it is still associated with the savoir faire, classical music appreciation has spread widely, with the emergence of prodigal figures in the scene helping to elevate Thailand onto the global stage. With the rise of classical music enthusiasts comes new music ensembles, and the growth of those who have been around since the beginning — among them is the Royal Bangkok Symphony Orchestra.
Originally the Bangkok Symphony Orchestra (BSO), the group was founded 30 years ago, and set a standard for professional orchestras across the nation before receiving Royal permission to rename itself as the Royal Bangkok Symphony Orchestra (RBSO) in 2016. Today, RBSO is known for complex, rich and moving performances, holding shows that range from classical, operatic and musicals to popular contemporary concerts. Helmed by B Grimm Group’s CEO Harald Link and under The Royal Patronage of Her Royal Highness Princess Sirivannavari Nariratana, RBSO steps into its fourth decade with its long-standing quality and a new mission — to foster the younger generation and make classical music accessible to all. Prior to the orchestra’s upcoming concert on April 10, Prestige had a chat with conductor and former Principal Trumpet of RBSO, Vanich Potavanich regarding his thoughts on The Greatest Showman versus Moulin Rouge, leadership and what it takes to understand classical music. Here’s what we learned.
Getting into music was an accident; continuing to pursue it was a choice.
Meeting Vanich for the first time, he speaks so passionately about music that you would think it had always been high up on his list of loves, so it comes as a surprise to find that he initially didn’t know if he would like it. “I got into music by playing the trumpet. At first I wasn’t even sure if I liked it. We just had to pick activities at school and I happened to join the marching band. Then one day I realised I was looking forward to the practices — I wanted to attend rehearsals everyday. So even though I still didn’t know if I liked it, I felt like I had to find more opportunities to explore this part of me.”
He attributes his quick fondness for music to more than just the act of playing the instrument. “It’s a mix of everything together, because the community itself is also such a nice thing to be part of. It’s like a family. We’re taught more by our seniors than teachers, so there’s a strong bond there, and we also do a lot of activities together like eating, cleaning up the studio, and even sharing the same rooms when we sleep.”
To conduct music, you must first know how to play it.
While today Vanich is most at ease with his conductor’s baton in hand, he believes his experience as a trumpet player was a big — if not crucial — step in his journey to becoming a renowned maestro. “Actually, everyone must start from an instrument. I believe that in a way, if you’ve never played an instrument before, you can’t grow as a conductor because you haven’t experienced music for yourself.”
To him, playing the trumpet was how it all began, “It was my first step to experiencing something special about music — otherwise I might not have known how to appreciate it. I played my instrument until I knew what was what, until I realised that music sounded good to my ears, and until I understood the complex nuances of each instrument. It was only after I understood all those things that I could take the step into becoming a conductor.”
If the conductor is a chef, the trumpet player is garlic — both are equally important.
While Vanich now feels most at ease with his conductor’s baton in hand, he occasionally dabbles in his previous role the orchestra’s Principal Trumpet. “The similarity between trumpet player and conductor is that both produce music, except the conductor doesn’t have a sound. The trumpet player is responsible for themself and the trumpet section, but the conductor is responsible for everything. In a way, the conductor is like a chef — maybe the trumpets are garlic, and the violins are mushrooms, but it’s the chef who decides how much of each ingredient to add and which flavours are needed.”
Vanich reminds that, albeit seemingly insignificant, each ingredient plays an important role in the final dish — an orchestra is no different. He points out the importance of the trumpet players as an example. “Actually, on many occasions, the conductor has to depend on the trumpet. When the song must get louder, sometimes you don’t really hear the change with the other instruments, but the trumpet is one of the only ones that can burst out loud and strong. It rises above the rest and leads the orchestra up to the next volume threshold. It seems like a small part, but it’s actually very important.”
The conductor can transform a song, especially when they understand why it was written.
To Vanich, musical notes are just a base waiting to be reinterpreted. “The conductor can change the style of the whole song. We are the ones who decide whether we want it to be fast, or sweet, or powerful.” He likens it yet again to the culinary arts, and how chefs can decide if a dish will be sweet, sour, or spicy. “And then, because there is so much room for us to design how the songs come out, the result also depends on the person listening. Some people might not like this, while others will think ‘hey, this is nice’.”
Not only does Vanich conduct the orchestra, but he’s also the composer behind many of the renditions and pieces they perform. “I actually like to compose romantic songs — I am a bit dramatic,” he jokes, “I like that it’s a good way to be in tune with your emotions, but as a conductor, sometimes you have to take yourself out from the song and not just do what you like. In order to be able to properly transform a song and make it yours, you have to study its context and understand how this song came about.” He takes baroque music as an example. “With baroque songs or those from the classic period, the instruments should not be played loudly because during that time, the instruments couldn’t be loud.”
And what of rewriting parts of existing songs? “For some songs from back in the day, the note range might have been very limited just because instruments were not advanced enough to play so many different notes. Maybe the composer did not intend for the song to only have three or four notes, but there just weren’t any other notes to choose from. Now things are so different, so some things can be changed, and others can be kept the same. If I approached music with no knowledge at all of this context, I would think the score was simple and just loud, when maybe more depth was intended with too little resources to reach it.”
He loves all the songs that will be played on April 10, especially those from The Greatest Showman.
RBSO’s upcoming concert on April 10 is titled ‘Music From Great Movie Musicals’, and will feature iconic songs from the likes of Moulin Rouge, to Les Misérables and even Beauty and the Beast. Vanich himself expresses excitement for the concert, explaining that “it will cover a wide variety of styles from fun, to sad and dark, and empowering.” To him, listening to songs that have been pre-recorded will never be like a live performance. “Even if you are listening to the same song, if someone has been practising it for a month, after that month they are not the same musician. When you listen to a live performance, you are listening to their personal improvement and their emotional journey.”
He’s particularly excited for The Greatest Showman. “The songs are very interesting, because none of them really repeat themselves. Even if the melody is the same, all the components are different — it’s like saying the same thing in a completely different way, or fried rice made using totally new ingredients.” Because he composed the songs himself for an orchestral arrangement, he could add elements that weren’t in the original CD version. “For instance, sometimes you only have one dimension, but then I could also have an added dimension that runs beneath that. Some things you might not hear as much on the CD, but we can pull it up and make it more dominant.” Because of these tweaks, he believes the concert will be fun for both fans of the songs and those who aren’t yet familiar with the music. “When you add these interesting details or effects, there is always something new to listen to. True fans of the songs could get excited by things that they never thought possible, and sometimes we might add a whole new part to make the experience unpredictable and interesting.”
A song doesn’t really need to have words to touch your heart.
While Vanich believes the upcoming ‘Music From Great Movie Musicals’ concert will be a striking success due to its accessible, iconic repertoire, he also has a soft spot for the true classics. “Songs that have no lyrics give you the chance to imagine. In the past, classical music was just pure music, and then after the romantic period, we started to use music to tell tales of things like flowers or grand battles.” Though the symphonies are connected to certain meanings, the lack of words in the songs mean everything is up to personal interpretation, according to Vanich. “Instead of thinking of flowers, maybe I see a boat floating on a pond. There is a lot of freedom to interpret, and also how these ideas can be communicated. The same word or idea could be told through a drastically different mood and tone.”
When asked whether classical music is difficult for non-musicians to understand, Vanich thinks otherwise. “Music has always been about enjoyment. You’re supposed to feel it, not worry about whether or not you know what it means. Start by just listening and figuring out if you like the way this sounds. Does this make you excited, does it make you smile? If it moves you, do you really need to know what it’s about? Sure, classical music might not be as straightforward as songs with lyrics, but if your imagination doesn’t hurt anyone, what’s wrong with writing your own story for the song?”
Vanich Potavanich and the RBSO will be performing ‘Music From Great Movie Musicals’ on April 10, from 7pm onwards at the Thailand Cultural Center. To find out more or get your tickets, visit thaiticketmajor.com. For more information about RBSO, visit bangkoksymphony.org.