The search for the tonic: Michele Bowen and Clara Shandler

Phnom Penh can be a tough town for a classically trained musician; gigs are few and far between.  This weekend there are two treats – Friday night sees Ai Iwasaki (mezzosoprano) and Gabi Faja (piano) teaming up for L’Aperitif du Poulenc at Meta House, while on Saturday Michele Bowen (bassoon) and Clara Shandler (cello) will be offering a duo at Green Pepper.  Leng Pleng travelled to the wilds of Tuol Tom Pong to chat with Michele and Clara ahead of their somewhat unique concert.

“It was [singer] Intan Andriana who approached me with the idea of doing some classical music at Green Pepper,” explains Michele.  “She said let’s start with a duo, and so I called Clara.  Regular paid gigs don’t come around very often for classical musicians.  There are some who will branch into jazz to get the gigs, but I am exclusively a classically trained musician.”

“I do a mix,” says Clara, the Canadian world traveller and Sidewalk Cellist.  “I can do some classical, some jazz, some pop, some rock, and I do my own songs, I sing, and with my partner Tsa Le on voice and guitar, between us we can do songs in four languages.  Recently I was approached to do some classical music for Oktoberfest at Odom Garden, because they couldn’t get a German oompah band, so what about German classical music?  I joined with Pisey, a Cambodian violinist, and we did mostly works by German composers.   I think that was the only classical gig I’ve had in Phnom Penh.”

One factor is the relative absence of appropriate venues, says Michele.  “For chamber music you have to find a venue that has good acoustic sound, because we’re not going to plug in.  Whether it be a restaurant or a performance space, it’s still hard to find spaces in Phnom Penh. Classical musicians tend to not want to just be in the background, we want people to sit quietly and listen.”

They are optimistic, though, as there are more gigs on the horizon, and because of the particular qualities that classical music has to offer.  “Classical music tends to be very soothing,” says Clara.  “Even though it can be dissonant and angry and full of emotion, one of the underlying concepts of classical music is that all of that turmoil is resolved by the end.  And with so much uncertainty and so much that’s unresolved right now, we don’t know what’s going on, we don’t know if we’re going to be able to leave the house, or leave the country, see our friends, anything.  But at least musically we know we can arrive at the tonic at the end of the third movement.”

To Clara it’s no surprise that there is a blooming of creative activity around the world at this moment.  “It happens all the time, looking through history.  The worst of the worst of the worst moments, that’s when art is there.  That’s when people write poetry and music, they dance, they paint, they create, because it’s the only thing that left that we have as human beings. Take for example
Quartet for the End of Time
by Olivier Messiaen.  It was written in 1940 in a concentration camp in France, using the only four instruments they had – a piano with several keys that didn’t work, a cello, a violin that I think was missing a string, and a clarinet.  It’s stunningly beautiful and heartbreaking.  People find themselves in terrible situations, and how do they get through it?  Art.”

Michele, originally from Wyoming, USA (“The population is less than 500,000, and they tend to not leave, so you probably won’t meet many people from Wyoming”), has been in Phnom Penh for going on nine years, playing where she can.  “When I came nine years ago, there were no opportunities.  The only classical music happening was the International Music Festival run by Anton Isselhardt – once a year for the festival, and then once a month concerts, but always featuring musicians from outside Cambodia.  This year the festival was lovely for local musicians like me, we got to participate and perform.  I have been seen with Kheltica in the past, here and there, which was fun.  Just before coronavirus hit we had a great orchestra going, the Phnom Penh Symphony Orchestra, with a great conductor from the Ukraine, and people were really starting to get excited about classical music.  We’re trying to start it up again.”

I had to ask: are bassoon players born or made?  “For me, born, I think,” she answers.  “I chose bassoon when I was 14.  It’s a big instrument, and they don’t make smaller versions of it like they do for cello and violin, so usually kids can’t learn bassoon until later.  I was playing the clarinet in the concert band at school, and I thought I want to be different, so I switched.”

This leads us into an interesting discussion about double reed instruments – notably bassoon and oboe.  “A bassoon player, because it’s a double-reed instrument, has to be considerably more dedicated, because they usually make all their own reeds,” explains Clara.  Michele elaborates:  “We have basically two instruments – the main one, and then the reed, which is very difficult to work with, and temperamental. You make one and it lasts for a month and then you’ve got to make a new one, so usually I make them in batches.”

In recent times, oboe player Noah Al-Malt was the other double reed player in town.  “Double reed players are family.  The day that I found out about Noah I was, like, he’s my brother in Cambodia, I haven’t met him yet but we’re going to be best friends – and we have been.  Maybe the same personality types choose these kinds of instruments.  At the beginning of coronavirus he decided to go to Australia and wait it out, and he’s still stuck there.”

Saturday night’s performance at Green Pepper promises to be a mellow affair.  “It is going to be very lovely sweet-sounding music, with our rather unique instrumentation,” says Clara.  “Bassoon and cello is not a normal duo, because you usually have one high and one low, and this is two lows – it’s like two tenors.  “There’s none of the shrill high frilly notes,” adds Michele, “It’s really earthy.  But it’s really great date night music, romantic, beautiful.  Easy on the digestion.”

““We’re doing a lot of Mozart, a bit of Haydn, Gabrieli.  Actually I am not the right person to talk about Mozart,” confesses Clara.  “He did not like the cello, by and large, so I’ve always thought of him as a bit of a twat.  He always gives the cellist the crap lines.  There’s a cello and bassoon duet, but he gives the melody and all the good stuff to the bassoon.  Ironically, we’ve switched, so I’m playing two thirds of the bassoon part.”

And how to classical musicians find each other?  A Facebook page, Classical Musicians of Phnom Penh, set up by Michele, helps musicians and classical music lovers to make connections and share news.

Enjoy Soft Music for Hard Times, Michele Bowen and Clara Shandler in performance, at Italian restaurant Green Pepper on St 370 on Friday from 7.30 pm.  Bookings highly advised.

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