The latest season of Phnom Penh’s Classical Concert series is coming back with a soiree of classical concert performances at the manicured grounds of Hotel Le Royale this Sunday.
Slated to take the stage at the premiere of the concert series is Trio Melange, led by Anton Isselhardt, a long-time fixture in Cambodia’s classical music scene who has organised the past 14 seasons of Phnom Penh’s International Music Festival.
And along with Isselhardt, Markus Gundermann from the Dresden Philharmonic will be playing the violin. To complete the trifecta, cellist Steve Retallick from the Malaysian Philharmonic Orchestra will be joining them to serenade the audience with repertoires that range from the early Classical Period to the works associated to composers who subscribe to the approach made popular by members of the Viennese school in the 18th century.
“I’ve known my fellow performers for a long time – but I still get anxious to be performing with such accomplished artists,” admitted Isselhardt.
Understandably so – although Isselhardt is no lightweight himself, after all, he is the programme director of Phnom Penh’s International Music Festival. It would give anyone the jitters to share a stage with artists of such calibre.
“I spent the past two months in India, so I have been practicing non-stop to make sure that my performance is at least at par with the rest of the trio,” laughed Isselhardt.
Fair enough – nobody wants to be the weak link in an ensemble, right?
As Isselhardt will be taking the lead, it is to be expected that flute will be the instrument du jour at the soiree – but anyone who has ever engaged Isselhardt in a conversation will know that the decision to showcase the flute as the main instrument goes far beyond showcasing the instrument just for the sake of it.
It is an instrument that is steeped in history, and the waxing and waning of the flute is reflective of the changes that were happening within society in the 17th century.
“The flute was somewhat relegated to the back seat between 1720 and 1880,” explained Isselhardt. “Prior to that, flute was almost omnipresent in all scores – but as music began to lose its lettres des noblesse and became increasingly accessible in public spaces, the flute is often relegated to a supporting role, if I may put it that way.”
One may assume that the flute simply went out of fashion – but the decision is not entirely unjustified.
“We have to understand how music was produced at that period of time,” explained Isselhardt. “Works were mostly commissioned by aristocrats to be played for a small circle of audiences – think tea parties and salon gatherings of the elite – and for a small limited audience, the flute’s delicate tones fits perfectly for these gatherings.”
But as performances moved from private soirees for the creme de la creme of society to public spaces and concert halls, the flute’s once-instrumental role in an orchestra was reduced in favour of other more robust-sounding instruments – which satisfies the acoustic requirement of the production as well as for its capacity to add a more dramatic element as the Classical period began its gradual transition to the more expressive Romantic period.
That said, the concertos that will be performed seem to primarily consist of the works of composers who are deeply associated with the Classical period – so one may be forgiven for thinking that the performances on offer might end up to be quite monotonous.
But Isselhardt vehemently disagrees with this.
“Yes, it could be quite hard to distinguish the work of Stamitz, Mozart, Beethoven and Haydn – as these composers are all associated with the Classical period,” he admitted. “But as I said before, this performance goes beyond showcasing the flute as an instrument.”
And Isselhardt has a point. Despite the fact that Stamitz, Mozart, Beethoven and Haydn worked within the same time frame, the circumstances under which they created their opuses cannot be any more different.
“For example, when people talk about German operas, most of the time their minds would begin to wander towards the grandeur of Wagnerian operas,” he explained.
“What many people don’t realise is that Mozart was the first composer who had the audacity to write an opera in German in 1767, in a period where Italian operas were the epitome of the art form.”
Beethoven, added Isselhardt, was not an exception. While Beethoven is more widely known as the deranged musical genius whose works often oscillate between melancholic sonatas to ‘turbulent’ concertos, what is not as widely known by the public is that Beethoven is considered as the first freelance composer in history.
“Anyone who has ever seen Beethoven’s original score must have seen that each piece is dedicated to an individual,” he said.
“Often times, the works are dedicated to the daughter or relative of a high-ranking aristocrat, who eventually became his patrons,” added Isselhardt. “Beethoven was a pioneer in that his success in finding a patron kick-started the whole trend among European aristocrats, to commission pieces which allowed many composers at that time to sustain themselves.”
While Mozart and Beethoven faced an uphill struggle, Haydn worked under a very different set of circumstances. An army officer who found his place in the Court of Esterhazy in Hungary for 40 years, Haydn enjoyed a stable and long life compared to his contemporaries.
“The relative stability that he enjoyed, combined with his experience as a military man, also had an impact on his works,” said Isselhardt. “There is a sense of ‘function’ in his works, as well as a degree of rigidity and purpose to his compositions.
“All in all, this is more than just a performance for performance sake. What we ultimately want to achieve from this is to get the audience to understand how music has always reflected the realities of life at a particular period of time, from which we can learn to move forwards to a better future.”
‘A Musical Soirée Under The Stars’ opens for one-night only at Raffles Hotel Le Royale on Sunday, February 18, at 8pm. Concert-only tickets are available for $10 at Raffles Hotel Le Royale. Children and students are eligible for discounts.