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Debussy festival promises music plus

The need is still greater than the received aid

Debussy festival promises music plus

Gus Peterson

"How did all this great talent end up in Chiangmai?" wondered a visitor after the concert on Friday night. This concert, the start of a three-day festival dedicated to the French composer Claude Debussy and his contemporaries, was a great ‘preview’ of what was, and still is, to follow in these series. No less than 11 musicians, all but one, living and working in Chiangmai, presented their renditions of music by 10 different composers. Piano, clarinet, harp, klui and guitar were their instruments. Add the voices of a soprano, a tenor and a baritone, and you will have the complete range of colours in this magnificent musical cascade.

After the initial performance at Gong Dee Studio, the participating artists received a well-deserved roaring applause.

The program included 19 compositions, all of them beautiful, interesting, spectacular and sometimes even funny. Like the song "Poem" from Christopher Berg, sung by tenor Antoine Garth, and "In the Inn", a piece by Charles Ives, played by pianist David Wilson. Spectacular, and very beautiful, was the rendition of Rachmaninov’s "Romance and Waltz", by four musicians. Bernard Sumner, David Wilson, Remi Namtep and Bennett Lerner squeezed themselves with visible effort behind one piano.

(From left) Remi Namtep, David Wilson and Bennett Lerner six-handedly on the piano.

We were treated to 3 premieres. There was the "Prelude for ‘Dr’ Claude", written for this occasion by Payap’s resident composer Thorsten Wollmann and performed by Chaipruk Mekara, clarinet, and Bennett Lerner on piano. Next came "Debussy’s Chimes", composed by the head of Payap’s music department, Ajarn Bringkop Voru-urai, who himself played the klui, with Passakorn Puprapar on the guitar. Historically interesting was the first Asian performance of "Intermède" by pianist Bennett Lerner. The manuscript of this composition, written by Debussy when he was 18, was only recently rediscovered in a private library.

Chaipruek Mekara, clarinetist, and Passakorn Puprapar, guitarist.

Pianist Bernard Sumner brought us to Cuba, where Ignacio Cervantes, a contemporary of Debussy, wrote his "Six Cuban Dances", little gems for piano. French composer Maurice Ravel was represented this evening by two parts from his piece for piano four hands "Ma Mère l’Oye", played by Bernard Sumner and Bennett Lerner.

Soprano Sheilagh Angpiroj, together with baritone Book Kitavadhana, gave a memorable performance of Camille Saint-Saens’ "Pastorale". Judith Utley played Debussy’s "Arabesque No.1" on harp. Deservedly bringing her an ovation.

Finally, there was a selection from the compositions that Debussy wrote for piano. Most of them were understandably played by Bennett Lerner, the initiator and organizer of this festival.

Chaipruek Mekara during one of his solo performances.

After this opening, there followed on Sunday the first concert in a series of four, this one dedicated mainly to Debussy’s piano and vocal music, but also including Ravel’s song cycle "Don Quichotte à Dulcinée". These songs, together with some songs, written by Debussy, gave Book Kitavadhana a wide range of possibilities to demonstrate both his vocal skills as well as his beautiful, warm baritone. His lively interpretation of "Chanson à boire" was something to remember.

Soprano Sheilagh Angpiroj got her chances in the five songs that Debussy wrote to texts from the French poet Charles Baudelaire "Cinq Poèmes de Baudelaire". Beautiful, lyric texts intertwined with Debussy’s wonderful piano accompaniments, make this cycle to a monument for French songs. Thanks to her highly developed techniques and her sensitive presentation, very well supported by Bennett Lerner, Sheilagh made an important contribution to this program.

Judith Utley, harpist with an emphasizing yet strong female touch.

Apart from accompanying the two singers, Bennett Lerner began by presenting his interpretations of Debussy’s music for piano. At the beginning of the evening he played a series of smaller pieces, demonstrating the enormous variation in Debussy’s oeuvre, ranging from "Little Nigger", a cakewalk, via Danse bohémienne (Debussy’s first composition for piano) to the meditative "Rêverie". He concluded the evening with seven parts from the "Préludes II". Bennett Lerner made "Feux d’artifice" a fitting and impressive fireworks to end this beautiful concert.

The venue for both concerts was the intimate Gong Dee Studio, which once again impressed many concertgoers by its subtle acoustics. To those who attended the final rehearsal on Thursday and who had to enter the studio via the backdoor because of the great chaos that was at that moment still reigning up front, it came as a wonderful surprise to see, only 24 hours later, a magnificently reconstructed gallery.

Soprano Sheilagh Angpiroj and baritone Book Kitavadhana during their memorable performance of Camille Saint-Saens’ "Pastorale".

To make this first part of a Debussy Festival into a real festival, the organizers had the fortunate idea to create some additional events. On Saturday afternoon there was the possibility to be (re)introduced to Debussy as a composer of operas. His famous opera "Pelléas et Mélisande", written after a play by Maurice Maeterlinck and first performed in 1902, has since been on the repertoire of all opera houses around the world. In Vista Cinema Bennett Lerner introduced the opera with a short lecture. Then followed a beautiful TV registration of the production by the Welsh National Opera, conducted by Pierre Boulez. As for us, here in Chiangmai, it is almost impossible to see a live production of an opera, the big screen and the excellent sound system, brought the audience as close to the ‘real thing’ as possible.

Finally there was the "Diner au Couchant du Soleil" at The House restaurant, a well-attended five course French dinner, for this occasion especially prepared by Chef Pom. Musical entertainment was presented by the guitar duo Gomain and Wigran and by Noppadorn Chatchakul, who while singing some lovely songs, of which two were his own compositions, accompanied himself on the guitar. After the dinner, pianist Remi Namtep presented music by various composers on the electone.

Many of us are looking forward to a Debussy Festival, Part 2, on Friday, September 9, 2005, with a concert presenting music for piano 2, 3, 4, 5, 6 and 7 hands, interpreted again by Bennett Lerner and friends.

The need is still greater than the received aid

Volunteer teacher reports on education in Umphang

Mario Greatti

Umphang district is located in Tak province in the northwest of Thailand, on the border with Burma. The area is mountainous and can only be reached by a 164 km long road from Mae Sod, a route that will take you four hours through the mountains, making it not only the largest district in Thailand, but also one of the most remote. Despite its remoteness, Umphang is an increasingly popular tourist destination, as it is home to the Tee Lor Su waterfall, the largest in Thailand and rated as one of the most beautiful in the world.

At this moment the school faces five major problems: feeding the dormitory students, improvement of the dormitories, extra living space at the dormitories, inventory for the dormitories and the water supply.

In 1998 I came to see the natural wonders of this largely undisturbed area. But coming to Umphang I discovered not only the beautiful nature, but also the resourcefulness of the local people. First at the hospital and later at the local secondary school, where I have taught English for six years as a volunteer. I have liked the people so much that for the past 18 months I have lived permanently in Umphang to help the students at the school in receiving a proper education.

The dormitories are overcrowded, also a health risk. When one of the students at the dormitories gets a cold or other infectious disease, the other students also get sick.

A large part of the population is of Karen origin and makes a living out of farming in one of the small hill tribe villages. They barely earn enough to live on, let alone to send their children to school.

As Umphang Wittayakom School is the only secondary school in the district, children have to go to this school. For some of the students this is not an easy task, as their home is sometimes more than a one day walk away. Especially during the rainy season, traveling is a problem. The only way for some of the students to get an education above elementary school is to stay in one of the school dormitories.

This boy must do his homework on a little desk on top of his bed, but even though the school’s dormitory lacks living space, the children’s spirits could not be higher.

The government does not subsidize the student’s cost of living of at the dormitories and the parents of these students do not have enough money to support their stay. They do not even have enough to provide their children with all necessary school items.

The remoteness of the district means that it is not a popular placement for teachers. As soon as they can they will move. The same goes for the school directors.

To earn some money students perform at resorts and sell school products. Tourist season is, however, only from December till the end of January.

However the current director, Somprasong Mang a Na, has decided not just to wait for a transfer but has chosen to stay and make a difference for the students at the dormitories.

It would be easy to only accept students who can pay for their stay, but it just would not be right. Every child should have the opportunity to go to school. With that in mind, Somprasong and his staff found ways to generate money, so the children of poor families would have the opportunity for an education. The school now sells products such as T-shirts, stickers and post cards to tourists. Many of the local tour operators support the school with donations, or send tourists to the school to buy school products. Students staying in the dormitories also visit the resorts in the area to sell school products and give performances. In addition, the school now has a scholarship program and some tourists provide scholarships for students, so they can continue their study.

Denying a child an education is just not an option.

Last but not least, the school receives support from the NGO’s working in two of the nearby refugee camps, as they not only want to help the refugees there, but also the communities along the border. They donate food and items such as blankets and mosquito nets.

The effect of this all has been enormous. Many students now receive an education, which they would otherwise have not received. When principal Somprasong started at Umphang Wittayakom School, there were 412 students, with only eight staying in the dormitories. Today the total is 624 students with 127 students staying at the dormitories. Parents now trust that the school will take care of their children if they can’t afford to pay for their children’s education themselves.

The students need mattresses as currently there are only a few. A very important item for the prevention of malaria are mosquito nets, as malaria is endemic in Umphang.

The teachers work very hard to make all that possible. They not only have to teach, but also take care of the students at the dormitories, act as foster parents, and try to raise money.

They need to do that as essential items are expensive, ranging from food and clothing to blankets and books. With more students who need a place in the dormitories each year the school has to try and raise more and that is getting increasingly difficult.

The kitchens at the older dormitories need to be improved. The lack of items is apparent.

This year the situation became particularly worrisome as last year the dormitories were already too full. With the help of the governor of Tak province the school has just finished building two extra dormitories, where 48 students can live.

The budget for the new dormitories did not include the necessary extra toilets/showers and kitchen, let alone money for the necessary inventory. They are still trying to raise money for these items with the help of private citizens and NGO’s donating money and goods with the generous donation by the Darling Mattress Company of mattresses. These gifts make it possible for the children from the remote villages of Umphang district to receive an education.

There is not always enough food and sometimes the students have nothing to eat other than plain rice with a little vegetables.

But the need is still greater than the aid and visiting the dormitories one sees bunk beds without mattresses and some furniture that is in too bad shape to use. Because of the lack of space the students have to do everything on their beds, not only sleeping but also doing their homework or even relaxing. The kitchens lack all kinds of utensils.

Even the supply of water is problematical, as the school gets its water from a very old pipeline. Too often it breaks down and the school gets no water at all, ranging from a few hours to a few days. With enough water the students would be able to grow some extra food of their own, which they started to do, but in vain due to the lack of water.

But seeing that they really care, I am proud to teach here as a volunteer. At this school denying a child an education is just not an option.

Umphang Wittayakom School is located in Umphang, Amphur Muang, Tak province. Donations (utensils and money) can be made to: Umphang Wittaykom School, 4 Moo 1 Umphang, Tak 63170, 055-561005.

Donations can be made to: Bamboo (the schools bank account for the dormitories) Savings account number 6041319707, Krung Thai Bank, Mae Sod branch.