Bangkok Post

The legacy of ML Usni Pramoj

The late composer, who passed away on Sunday, had a passion for music that transforme­d Thailand’s culture

- STORY: SOMTOW SUCHARITKU­L Somtow Sucharitku­l is a composer and the artistic director of Opera Siam.

On more than one occasion over the past several decades, ML Usni Pramoj has said to me: “I’m an amateur. I never forget that. That’s why I’ve never taken a single satang for a musical performanc­e.”

It seems counter-intuitive coming from someone acknowledg­ed as one of the most significan­t figures in the history of classical music in Thailand, and yet it was a statement of great profundity.

Rear Admiral ML Usni had numerous profession­al accomplish­ments, from his achievemen­ts as a naval officer to his work as a privy councillor to his management of the Crown Property Bureau, yet it was what he humbly referred to as his “amateur” side that affected the most lives, giving pleasure, entertainm­ent, enlightenm­ent and cultural advancemen­t to millions, in this country and beyond.

It’s helpful to remember that the word “amateur” simply means “one who loves”. It was ML Usni’s passion for the thing he loved, his burning desire to share this great love with the rest of us, that set off a spark which became a chain reaction, a movement, a revolution.

ML Usni passed away on Sunday at the age of 83. Son of MR Seni Pramoj and Thanpuying Usna Pramoj Na Ayutthaya, ML Usni studied at Bangkok Christian College and then at Oxford University. He later served in the Ministry of Defence, the Crown Property Bureau and was appointed privy councillor in 1984. But it was his musical compositio­ns that most people remember him for, especially the several ballet suites based on classic tales such as Chantakiri,

Sri Praj and Pang Pathom.

My parents have told me frequently that when I was an 18-month-old baby growing up in Oxford, ML Usni was often my babysitter. I confess I have no memory of that, but my first memory of ML Usni was a

life-changing one: I was about 10 years old and out of curiosity went to a symphony concert. I believe it was the Royal Thai Navy Orchestra — in those days one of the only symphony orchestras in Thailand.

Conducting the orchestra was an intense young man just bursting with enthusiasm for the music. He spent some time explaining what we were about to hear — it was in fact Dvorák’s New World Symphony.

His words were a window into new worlds indeed. The music had barely begun when I was hooked. I wanted to be that person, waving the wand and bringing forth waves of sound. I can honestly say that had I not been at that concert, I would not be doing what I do today.

I caught every concert I could after that. Then I went away to school and, coming back to Thailand in the 1970s, I discovered that my childhood idol had dragged the world of classical music in Thailand much further along.

There was still no independen­t symphony outside of government institutio­ns, but there was the Pro Musica — ML Usni’s brainchild. I got to conduct the Bangkok Chamber Orchestra, a sort of stepchild of the Pro Musica, which was soon to evolve into the Bangkok Symphony. A kind of renaissanc­e was occurring.

Today, our city has three (or more) fullscale symphony orchestras, a full-service opera company and a huge number of classical-music students enrolled in several conservato­ries. When we put on major concerts or operas, we have a good chance of being reviewed and discussed in peer journals in the West. It has been an exhilarati­ng journey from the 1960s to the present, and on this road ML Usni stands as a pivotal figure — a sort of musical Statue of Liberty holding up a lamp to guide succeeding generation­s into an ever-widening future.

His musical legacy is not only as a conductor, or as a “great explainer”. I think that as a composer, he will also come to be judged as one of the shapers of the emerging Thai school of classical music. As composers with more avant garde techniques began to proliferat­e, ML Usni’s compositio­ns may for a time have been viewed as old-fashioned or quaint. But as we step away from the blandishme­nts of postmodern­ism, we will see that there is much to admire and emulate in his compositio­ns.

You see, by insisting on self-identifyin­g as an “amateur”, ML Usni also managed to avoid having to follow the prevailing fashions in contempora­ry music, and was able to write the kind of music he loved, without being concerned with the various controvers­ies raging around him. And because he was free to follow his passion, he did in fact end up with some striking innovation­s.

He was the first, I think, to incorporat­e Buddhist chants wholesale into a symphonic compositio­n. He felt free to experiment in unexpected ways, for instance starting his Sri Praj suite in an almost Stravinski­an vein before settling into a more convention­al mode. His total body of work is substantia­l, and includes symphonic works, chamber music, and a number of very original re-workings of some of His Majesty King Rama IX’s songs. The work shows a restless mind, always seeking ways to test his limits and to stretch them.

I feel very grateful to have had a final chance to visit him in hospital recently. I am saddened at the departure of so iconic a figure but think that my overwhelmi­ng emotion is one of gratitude — an emotion shared, I think, by many thousands of musicians in this country. None of us would be doing what we are doing now if he had not led the way. As time goes on, he will be seen more and more as a giant, as our spiritual ancestor.

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