A Western Touch – Cambodian Musicians Master Classics From Europe

Talent has little to do with income, said Him Sophy, a Cambodian composer of Western music. While people from wealthier families might have better opportunities to study, great musicians may emerge from the poorest villages, given the opportunity to develop, he said.

In fact, the Cambodians featured at the International Music Festival, which takes place this weekend through Tuesday at the North Campus of the Royal University of Fine Arts (RUFA), all come from very ordinary Cambodian families.

They grew up listening to Cambodian traditional instruments in their neighborhoods and villages, and in most cases, their decision to make Western classical music their profession came from a love of that music which came later in life.

Of the 40 students in his class in 1988, only 13 completed the 7-year program, said violinist Mao Samnang. In October, Mao Samnang played in the Southeast Asian Youth Orchestra in Bangkok, with 50 musicians from nine countries.

Flutist Him Savy’s father died during the Khmer Rouge regime while her mother survived because the Khmer Rouge liked her singing. Him Savy grew up in Prey Veng province surrounded by traditional Khmer musicians. She first studied a traditional instrument. “Then I fell in love with Western classical music,” said Him Savy. She plays with Sim Ratha, Heang Sophon and Uy Tach in the Chaktomouk Consort this weekend.

The Cambodians taking part in the festival come from three eras of Western classical musicians, each involving its own brand of difficulties.

Today’s RUFA musicians speak of the lack of means to develop. “Some years, we did not have enough teachers, and tried to practice by ourselves,” said Heang Sophon, who entered RUFA in the late 1980s to study Khmer flute but later switched to viola. “(Cambodian musicians) are eager to play well. For this, we need professors,” who can teach technique as well as the meaning of the music, he said.

In addition, some students have to share instruments, which makes it necessary to carefully plan practice time, said violoncellist Sim Ratha.

The situation was quite different when violinist Pen Dareth—the son of a farmer and small shopkeeper from Kompong Cham province—entered the National Music School in the 1960s, which would later become part of RUFA. Teachers then were paid wages they could live on, and students received a stipend, he said. “We really had good instruments and rooms to practice.”

In 1967 Pen Dareth obtained a scholarship to attend the University of Music Franz Liszt in Weimar, East Germany, where he spent seven years.

In late 1974, he traveled to Paris to board an airplane for Cambodia but the civil war was raging and all flights to Phnom Penh were canceled.

Pen Dareth was stranded for nine months in Paris, penniless and living with friends. He eventually took refuge at the home of his wife’s aunt in the Netherlands. Until his return to Cambodia in 1996, he taught music in that country: studied international relations; became active in then-Prince Norodom Sihanouk’s activities in the 1980s; and headed the Dutch advisory council on refugee and minority policies.

Pen Dareth now serves as dean of Social Sciences at the University of Cambodia, teaches musicology at the Royal Academy of Cambodia, and is a Member of the Council of Jurists at the Council of Ministers.

Him Sophy was among the students who, in the 1980s, received scholarships to study in Soviet bloc countries. In 1985, he studied piano at the Moscow Conservatory, and in 1988 composition at the Moscow State Tchaikovsky Conservatory. Intent on completing his doctorate studies, Him Sophy remained in Moscow without a scholarship in 1993. “I was unbelievably poor. I returned to Cambodia in 1998 with my four diplomas, my song book and my photos.” Him Sophy now supervises post-graduate students at the Royal Academy and teaches at RUFA. One of his compositions will be played on Tuesday night.

The festival is organized by the Foundation for the Advancement of Western Classical Performing Arts in Cambodia. Funded in 2002, the NGO is supported by private individuals in Germany, said Gerhard Anton Isselhardt, the NGO director and a Western music teacher at RUFA since 1999. Its purpose is to help create conditions in the country that will make it possible for musicians of both Western classical and Cambodian traditional music to support themselves through their art, he said.

Music is very much part of all people’s lives in Cambodia, said Pen Dareth. “I hope [authorities] will push to emphasize music and to promote music studies as part of our culture,” he said.


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