Classical music concert hits the right note

It’s a brave move to promote a classical music concert in Siem Reap during the middle of a heat wave, but that’s exactly what flautist Leo Salazar did, together with violinist Simon Gilbert.

The talented duo organised the concert last week, titled “Angkor Classique”, hoping the occasion would hit the right note and that people would turn up at the venue, the little-known Apsara Theatre to face the music.

And they did.

On the night, Leo and Simon performed 10 musical works ranging from Bach, and Mozart to Boismortier and featured special guest singer Noémie Dawant.

“The programme was very well received,” Leo said. “We had a semi-full house, roughly 50 people in attendance and I’ve been getting lots of positive feedback such as ‘This is exactly what Siem Reap needs: a bit of culture,’ and ‘What a wonderful experience. I haven’t heard live music like this in quite a while’.”

Leo added that the venue also got its share of plaudits. “There were many long-time Siem Reapers who had never set foot inside the theater before and who thought the building was gorgeous with excellent acoustics.”

Both musicians have impressive pedigrees. Belgian-expat Simon Gilbert is a violinist, violist, singer, composer and arranger as well as a choir conductor. He’s also an eclectic musician, adept in jazz, classical, folk, and rock. He settled in Siem Reap in 2020 and teaches violin and general music education. He also conducted the Sing! Siem Reap Adult Choir and is involved in various projects such as Trio Salazar, Quantum, Swing Reapers and now Angkor Classique.

Los Angeles native Leo Salazar, studied flute with James Patrone, a veteran of Hollywood movie studios and with noted jazz musician and educator Roger Rickson.

Simon Gilbert and Leo Salazar (R) in tune. Supplied

After graduating with a BSc in Music Performance from the Old Dominion University in Virginia, Leo relocated to Europe to become an intercultural communication specialist but continued being active flautist, an instrument he favoured, he says, after discovering that in most school music programmes in the US the flute was overwhelmingly an instrument favoured by girls.

In between growing a luxuriant beard, Leo and flute moved to Siem Reap in 2019, where he teaches workplace English to business executives and plays in the Trio Salazar jazz ensemble and Angkor Classique.

Both Simon and Leo perform in genres other than classical and Leo admits that this is “fairly unusual”.

“There have been well-known crossover artists between genres but most performers stick to one path. The reasons for this are very much socio-cultural. Genre-benders are not labeled as serious artists if they cross over, but for both Simon and I, it is more important to broaden our skills, have fun and bring joy to audiences of all kinds than it is to conform to conventional expectations.

“I am a firm believer that music is a way of languages. As such, every genre of music delivers a specific message with various focuses and interests. Whereas classical music inspires beauty, architecture and deep contemplation, jazz expresses freedom and creation on the spot. Finally, my work with electronic music brings me to pure creation outside of the boundaries set by any predefined style of music,” Leo says.

But Leo does agree that both music genres – jazz and classical – are not exactly top of the pop, with the big question being whether there are enough followers in Siem Reap to provide economic and spiritual nurturing.

“Conforming to conventional expectations has never been our way of gaining popularity,” he says. “Simon and I strive for excellence in the music that we enjoy, and it pays off.

“Our jazz and classical performances are very well-attended and we mainly have Larry Bachi of the Villa D Riverside Boutique Hotel in Siem Reap to thank for hosting our concerts. Additionally, last year Simon performed an entire evening of Bach solo cello suites, transcribed for violin, and the place was standing-room only. Sold-out concerts are, in my view, testimony enough that there is strong interest in Siem Reap for these music genres.”

The fact that Leo and Simon decided to perform in Siem Reap in the first place is down to the influence of local music-cum-culture fixer and café clutch contender, Big Jim Latt, of the Magic Flute in Angkor fame.

“Our mutual friend Jim Latt initially brought us together in February last year,” Leo says. “He and I were chatting in one of Siem Reap’s small coffee shops and we observed that the town has many popular music groups – rock, pop, jazz etc – but nothing for classical music. Jim said, ‘You find the music, I’ll find the people’.”

“He found five musicians: two clarinetists, a cellist, Simon on violin, and me on flute. We formed the Pierrot Ensemble Angkor, which focused on music inspired by the 20th-century composer Arnold Schoenberg. After a number of inspiring rehearsals, our cellist left Cambodia. Because Pierrot music requires a specific combination of instruments, the group disbanded. Simon and I remained in touch and, a few months later, we formed Angkor Classique.”

And the rest, as they say, may possibly become history.

Indeed, to increase patronage Leo and Simon are now working on the idea of touring Cambodia within the next six months or so, taking in Phnom Penh, Battambang and Kampot. They also want to expand Siem Reap’s classical music talent base and hope to winkle out the shy and retiring musicians living, lurking or loving in Siem Reap and environs.

“If there are other talented classical musicians in Siem Reap who would like to join us, we’d love to include them,” Leo says. “Perhaps, as word of our efforts spreads wider, we will hear from those musicians who have been hiding up until now.”

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