More Local Flair in Phnom Penh’s Classical Music Festival

When the Western classical music festival was launched in Phnom Penh in the early 2000s, there were not many Cambodians involved.

But if Tuesday’s rehearsal for the 11th International Music Festival was any indication, the country’s classical music scene is changing, with the emergence of a new generation of Cambodian musicians.

Clarinetist Cheak Bunhong and pianist Etienne Chenevier rehearse at Meta House in Phnom Penh on Tuesday. (Jim Mizerski)
Clarinetist Cheak Bunhong and pianist Etienne Chenevier rehearse at Meta House in Phnom Penh on Tuesday. (Jim Mizerski)

Most artists rehearsing at Meta House Tuesday were Cambodians, such as 20-year-old cellist Khuon Sethipanha. And in the five-day festival, they will be playing a leading role.

Today’s Cambodian teenagers are more familiar with Western classical music, and the number of aspiring musicians is on the rise, according to Mr. Sethipanha.

“I think they understand more than before, a lot of students study music [now]. Before it was only a few,” he said.

And as will be seen at the festival, which opens tonight, those musicians are “of high level,” said festival director and flutist Anton Isselhardt.

This talent was on display Tuesday as Cambodian clarinetist Cheak Bunhong was joined by pianist Etienne Chenevier and Mr. Isselhardt in rehearsing Claude Debussy’s “Prelude to the Afternoon of a Faun.” Their interpretation was fresh, bright and lively—it made one want to smile.

Organized by the Art+Foundation, this year’s festival is titled “European and Asian Mythology in Music,” with works influenced by legendary characters or exotic themes. For instance, Malaysian pianist Loo Bang Hean will play excerpts from Peter Tchaikovsky’s “The Sleeping Beauty,” based on the legend of a princess who sleeps for 100 years.

French composer Albert Roussel’s music, which will be performed on the festival’s closing night on Monday, carries what was considered exotic tinge at the time, said Mr. Bunhong, the clarinetist.

“He traveled through Southeast Asia and even Phnom Penh” in the 1890s and early 1900s, he said. “It’s interesting because we have some pieces in which he tries to describe the Asian people.”

The festival takes place at three venues: Hotel InterContinental, Meta House and St. Joseph’s Chapel.

Tonight’s opening concert at the InterContinental will feature cellist Stephanie Waegener and pianist Bakhtiyor Allaberganov.

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