Thailand & Vietnam are Fast Becoming Classical Guitar Hot Spots
Thu Le & Ekachai Jearakul
BY MARK HOUGHTON | FROM THE FALL 2019 ISSUE OF CLASSICAL GUITAR
Communications in modern times are often taken for granted. Barring any anxieties related to lost luggage or flight cancellations, the procedure of casually hopping on and off flights to far-away places is surprisingly smooth and trouble-free. Even when that destination requires two seven-hour flights from my home city of Liverpool, UK, airport amenities and on-board multimedia connections mean that at no point do you feel the onset of boredom. I could get used to this. My destination is Suvarnabhumi Airport, Bangkok, and awaiting is a busy calendar of closely timetabled guitar events, each sporting international guitar competitions: first in Pattaya City, Thailand; followed by Ho Chi Minh City (formerly Saigon) in Vietnam; then back to Bangkok, Thailand. The classical guitar is alive and well in both countries, and indeed in all parts of Southeast Asia.
So, what’s behind this buzzing interest in the classical guitar in Southeast Asia? Well, there is an uninhibited vitality in how young players approach performing the music—which includes all the in-vogue “Western” repertoire, and the “traditions of the classical guitar” (so succinctly documented in the book of the same name by Graham Wade). To further investigate this pedagogical factor, I enlisted the opinions of a few prominent personalities who I’ve been fortunate to meet on my travels here.
In Bangkok, at the heart of this development, are two education establishments: Mahidol and Silpakorn universities. Dr. Paul Cesarczyk, Professor of Guitar at Mahidol University, gave me some background about the guitar department there and his own interests:
“The guitar program at Mahidol University College of Music, was started in 1996 by Suvich Klinsmith, a student of Paul Henry in Chicago. I joined the faculty and became department head in 2009. Our faculty consists of a ten-member team, and the department encompasses pre-college, undergraduate, master’s, and doctorate music programs.
“No doubt a tremendous boost to Thai guitar happened in 2014 when one of Mahidol’s graduates, Ekachai Jearakul, known here by the nickname ‘Bird,’ won the GFA [Guitar Foundation of America] First Prize. After completing the bachelor program, I encourage many of my students to search for opportunities to study abroad. Many of them have gone on to study at the Mozarteum [in Austria], the San Francisco Conservatory of Music, HMDK Stuttgart, Maastricht, and others.
“With a limited budget, we try to have at least two guest artists each year visit for concerts and classes. In 2018, we were lucky to get David Starobin and Rene Izquierdo. One important part of our growth is establishing partnerships and exchange programs with regional music schools. The most fruitful of these have been with the Ho Chi Minh Conservatory of Music in Vietnam and the Universiti Teknologi MARA in Malaysia.”
As for Silpakorn, the leading creative university in Bangkok, its guitar department was inaugurated 1999 and now offers organized guitar activities in a variety of formats, including inviting professional artists as special guest lecturers and performers; workshops and master classes; and an annual organized international summer camp and festival.
Pongpat Pongpradit is a lecturer in guitar at Silpakorn. A graduate of both Silpakorn (bachelor’s degree) and Mahidol (master’s), he has given solo and duo recitals all over Asia, as well as in Europe. He was the founder of a group called Asian Guitar Friends whose meetings have led to a number of creative events across the region, including, in 2018, the first annual Southeast Asia (SEA) Guitar Festival, directed by Pongpat and involving participants from Southeast Asia.
Pongpradit says, “The rationale is that these regional activities will help promote the popularity of the classical guitar, improve the level of playing, and develop relations among participant countries. The first SEA Guitar Festival was held in Bangkok in April 2018 in collaboration with the Silpakorn International Guitar Festival and Chang Chui Arts establishment. Seven Countries—Malaysia, Indonesia, Myanmar, Singapore, Vietnam, Philippines, and Thailand—were the founding members, and the staging of this event will move to successive countries in the chain. The organizers believe that guitarists need to connect with other guitarists to create opportunities for each other.” The 2019 SEA Guitar Festival and Performance Awards were held in early May, in Jakarta, Indonesia, and the 2020 edition will take place in Malaysia.
There are other key personalities and organizations that are fostering the growth of the guitar scene in Thailand, including the Thailand Guitar Society, which was founded in 2008 by Woratep Rattana-umpawan and Leon Koudelak. Both active recitalists, they provide important events from their bases in Bangkok and Pattaya, respectively. The Pattaya International Guitar Festival is one such collaboration, attracting high-quality artists such as French virtuoso Gérard Abiton, who regularly performs and delivers master classes at several events in Southeast Asia.
The Pattaya Festival is condensed into one day, ensuring a busy schedule of events, alongside Junior and Open competitions. Another important event the two have organized is the Asia International Guitar Festival & Competition at the Sukosol Hotel in Bangkok—this past June’s fest attracted Abiton, Roberto Aussel, Damien Lancelle, Gen Matsuda, and others. It’s worth mentioning at this point, too, that every event I’ve attended in the region has featured a gallery area displaying the highest caliber regional and neighboring-country luthiers, along with accessory and book stalls.
I’m surprisingly immune to jet lag effects, and it’s just as well, as the next morning I’m on a flight from Bangkok to Ho Chi Minh City in Vietnam, home of the Saigon International Guitar Festival & Competition. The festival’s Artistic Director, Huy Thanh Nguyen, has been Professor of Guitar at Ho Chi Minh City (HCMC) Conservatory of Music since 2006, and has performed many concerts across Vietnam, Southeast Asia, and even in the USA.
Nguyen tells me, “The Department of Classical Guitar was founded in 1956, following the establishment of the Ho Chi Minh City [Saigon] Conservatory of Music that same year, marking the start of official music education in Vietnam. An important turning point was the establishment of the Classical Guitar Society in the 1980s, where acclaimed guitarists came together under the patronage of the Cultural House of the Phu Nhuan District. The Phu Nhuan Classical Guitar Society in the ’80s was known for having the highest development of classical guitar in Vietnam. In the 1990s, the first national classical guitar competition was organized in the HCMC Conservatory of Music and held every three years, but bowed out after successful editions in 1991, 1994, 1997, and 2000. I was a winner of the second edition, in 1994.”
Today, approximately 40 students are studying at both pre-college and university levels at the guitar department of the HCMC Conservatory. Between 2006 and 2012 Nguyen developed a cooperative agreement with the Norwegian government–funded “Transposition Programme” with many international guitarists who gave master classes and recitals in Ho Chi Minh City, thus expanding the exposure of western players to Southeast Asian guitarists.
Nguyen is also a member of the Saigon Guitar Quartet, and, he says, “In 2014, together with some friends and colleagues, we founded the Saigon International Guitar Festival under the auspices of the HCMC Conservatory of Music, and I became the festival’s founding Artistic Director. This is the first international classical guitar festival in Vietnam.” The SIGF’s first competition was held in 2017 for local players only, but was expanded in 2018 to include guitarists from other Southeast Asian countries. The 2019 event added a Guitar Ensemble competition, so this is definitely a festival on the rise.
The 2018 festival was indeed a wonderful event, with concerts given by such internationally renowned guitarists as Gérard Abiton, Rene Izquerido, Paul Cesarczyk, Thierry Begin-Lamontagne, Thu Le & Lorenzo Bernardi, Leon Koudelak, Carlo Aonzo (mandolin), and Tomonori Arai, interspersed with competition rounds of very high-standard playing. I confess that part of my interest at the SIGF in 2018 was to hear ensemble compositions of mine featured in the opening guitar ensemble concert.
I should also note that in northern Vietnam, an important annual event is the Alma Hanoi Guitar Festival & Competition, held annually at the end of October and hosted by festival founder Vu Duc Hien, known as a torchbearer for Hanoi’s classical guitar scene. The aforementioned guitarist Thu Le is also from Hanoi, and she has become perhaps the most popular and visible Vietnamese guitarist outside the country, successfully concertizing in both Europe and the USA.
After the SIGF, it was back to Bangkok and lunch with Ekachai Jearakul (“Bird”). He is widely seen as the premier Thai classical guitarist, his career showing a path to the very top for other Southeast Asian players. Besides mastering traditional Western repertoire, Bird has been active in bringing traditional Thai music to the guitar through his own impressive arranging skills. Indeed, a recording project for Naxos (in preparation) is his homage to the musically talented former long-reigning king of Thailand, King Bhumibol Adulyadej (1950–2016), encompassing arrangements of the complete song compositions written by the monarch. The 32-year-old guitarist also has a thriving online teaching course, complete with tutor books (supported by Yamaha), and a forthcoming recording project called Siam Whisperer, which certainly sounds intriguing (and for which I have contributed some arrangements).
The final guitar event of my 2018 visit was the Thailand International Guitar Festival, directed by the indefatigable Nutavut Ratanakarn, founder of the Bangkok Guitar Society and a successful soloist whose 2019 concert schedule included recitals in Southeast Asia, Hungary, Macedonia, Serbia, China, Italy, Bulgaria, and Turkey. Concerts at the festival by Ratanakarn, Mesut Özgen, Momcilo Aleksandric, and piano-and-guitar duets by Emiliano Leonardi and Lelyzaveta Pluzhko show how this growing event has become increasingly international in scope. I served as a member of the jury, contributed master class work, and hosted a stall exhibition for the Canadian publishing house Les Productions d’Oz/Doberman and Houghton Guitar Shop (Bangkok).
That about sums up this lightning tour of Thailand and Vietnam. The classical guitar is a lifetime journey of rewards, traditions, innovations, and inspirations, all stimulating the senses of people in similar ways around the globe. There are so many people I have not had a chance to mention here, but all of whom play meaningful roles in the thriving Southeast Asia guitar scene. Long may it continue for the betterment of our beloved instrument!
England-based Mark Houghton is a guitarist, teacher, and composer of around 120 published works, including several ensemble pieces which have been performed around the world at guitar festivals.