Pianomania comes to Phnom Penh

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Lestari Scholtes, left, and Gwylim Jannsen will perform at ‘Two Pianos, Four Hands’ on the 18th. Supplied

The International Music Festival of Phnom Penh is back for its 14th annual concert series at the Intercontinental Hotel tonight with a series of recitals spanning the course of three weeks. Khmer Times sat down with festival director Anton Isselhardt to discuss the concept and challenges behind the festival, and the future prospects of bringing classical music closer to Cambodia, for Cambodians.

KT: This year, the theme that has been chosen is ‘Pianomania’. Can you elaborate further on the chosen concept for this year?

Isselhardt: Through ‘Pianomania’, we wanted to highlight the versatility of the piano as a musical instrument. We aim to highlight this by including a very wide range of repertoires which span from Bach’s pieces from the Baroque period, Mozart’s symphonies from the Classical period, Romantic pieces by Beethoven and the likes, Bela Bartok’s interpretations of Polish mazurkas and last but not least, the works of Cambodian folk singers Sinn Sisamouth, and of course, the late King Sihanouk.

To accommodate all the performances, we will be holding seven concert series held across three weekends – our biggest series to date – so there will be something for those who are musically inclined, as well as those who are looking to explore new genres of music.

KT: Won’t it be hard for those who aren’t familiar with the genres, as well as those who aren’t musically inclined, to ‘digest’ the wide repertoires that will be showcased over the course of three weeks?

Isselhardt: This is true for all genres of music, or any other art forms for that matter, so curation is definitely crucial to ensure that the audience can not only enjoy but understand the subtle nuances between different musical periods.

For example, the festival will kick off with a series of performances showcasing what we consider as the Bach, Beethoven, and Brahms – the three B’s of German classical music. Throughout the evening, the audience will be able to focus on the distinct style of each composer, which hail from different musical periods. Bach’s Toccata in E Minor – very much Baroque in style – will be followed by Beethoven’s Sonata No. 31, which lies somewhere in the middle between the Classical and the Romantic period. Brahms’ Rhapsodies – highly influenced by Romantic period composers like Robert Schumann – will conclude the evening.

The theme of each evening will be different. They will be compartmentalised in such a way that the audience can focus their attention on a particular musical period and its corresponding styles. Furthermore, each performance will be preceded by a talk by musicians and academics. We hope this will create a better understanding among the audience of the changes that were happening in society at a particular period in time.

KT: The fact that the festival is returning for the 14th time is obviously a good sign, but apart from one Cambodian performer, the rest are from abroad. Is there not enough local talent to support the festival’s programme?

Isselhardt: What we have to understand is that Cambodia is still in its early stages of development. It is not that we didn’t seek out local talent to perform in our concert series, because we did, but there simply isn’t enough local talent whose skills can do these magnum opuses justice.

It really is a challenge, but it is a challenge that we have to persevere through. By holding our annual festival and other scheduled recitals, we hope to pique the interests of younger generation Cambodians to explore different musical instruments. In the case of this year’s festival, the piano, as well the smorgasbord of different genres and styles that could be explored through the instrument.

Rong Sereyvann will perform both German classics and Khmer folk songs at the ‘East meets West’ concert. Supplied

KT: So will the people of Phnom Penh be able to see more elaborate productions – perhaps Bellini’s Norma, or Puccini’s Turandot – in the near future?

Isselhardt: Again, this will really depend on the development of the talent pool within Cambodia’s music scene. Even with the ongoing support from the Cambodian government, if we were to stage, let’s say… Igor Stravinsky’s Three Pieces for String Quartet… we would have to fly the quartet from abroad, which complicates the matter further as budget limitations come into the equation. So perhaps, but in the near future I’d say it is unlikely.

That said, we will continue to do whatever it takes to lay out the groundwork, so the classical music scene in Cambodia can thrive in the future.

The way we plan to do it in the future is by selecting pieces that have contextual relevance to modern issues. The theme that we have chosen for next year is related to music and migration, and we are planning to showcase works by Frederic Chopin and Sergei Rachmaninoff, among others.

Very few people are aware that their styles are highly influenced by the geopolitics of their time. Chopin emigrated to France after the November Uprising of 1830, while Rachmaninoff ended up in the United States after Bolshevik Revolution.

The works of these composers are influenced by events that are geographically removed from the region, but the issue remains the same – involuntary migration due to political turmoil. By juxtaposing such works to the modern context, we hope that more people will be interested in the genre and understand how music can be one of the ways through which we can learn about our past, so we can move forward towards a better world.

The International Music Festival of Phnom Penh will be held across three weekends at the Intercontinental Hotel from November 10-26. Tickets can be purchased at the venue, or at Meta House up to one day before each performance. Earlybirds, students and groups are eligible for discounts.

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