Thailand is fast becoming the new “It” destination for classical musicians, and violinist Dr. Mahakit Lerdcheewanan has found himself at the center of its artistic wellspring. In his role as Assistant Concertmaster of the Thailand Philharmonic Orchestra and faculty member at Mahidol University, he’s leading the artistic and educational ascension of his homeland and developing a new generation of talented performers, enthusiasts, and donors. 

Whether it’s organizing a national concerto competition to highlight talented youth, performing for the Siam Society with the Libere String Quartet in Bangkok, or bringing outreach concerts and instruction to rural Thai children, this Orvieto Musica alum has made musical inspiration a holistic act that’s reshaping the musical landscape from the ground up. 

We sat down to talk with Mahakit about his exciting work as a leader and innovator at this exciting moment in Thailand’s cultural evolution, how up-and-coming performers and organizers can leverage what he’s learned, and how his time in Orvieto helped energize his vision. 

OM: Tell us about what’s new in classical music in Thailand.

Mahakit: We’re starting to develop an international profile, which is very exciting. We just had both the International Double Reed Society and the International Viola Society host their conventions here, and people from around the world came to Thailand and got to see what we’re doing here. 

We have two major orchestras—the Thailand Philharmonic Orchestra and the Royal Bangkok Symphony Orchestra—and there are chamber music concerts all the time. We have sponsors and patrons who are enthusiastic about developing classical music in the country, and there’s also great interest in showcasing and exporting what we do. The TPO went on tour through Eastern Europe recently, including Poland, Slovenia, and Budapest. 

As a result, there is a lot of momentum developing with youth around classical music and there’s a lot of education. Talent has reached a level where we were able to hold the inaugural Thailand Strings Competition in 2022. 

OM: That’s incredible! How did it go?

Mahakit: We had 174 applicants in the first year across six divisions. We had age ranges from four years old through early 20s. We did our first round online and our semifinal and final rounds had fantastic performers, so we were very happy. Our second year increased to 220 participants, and we’re looking forward to building on the success. 

OM: What made you decide to start such a big project, and what did it take to launch?

Mahakit: We all had a lot of private students, and we didn’t feel like the available competitions were giving us the experience we wanted. They were all online, only had one round, had generic requirements, and weren’t really focusing on showcasing string excellence on the national level as it should be done. 

We also noticed that a lot of competitions had wide age ranges in each category, and we wanted to narrow them down to highlight different developmental stages of technique and artistry. It also created trajectory for our participants from year to year so they have goals to aspire to. 

OM: This is all very exciting—how does today compare to Thailand’s classical music scene 20 years ago?

Mahakit: It was almost nonexistent because classical music was only something for the elites. The grassroots change has been accessibility—you have to have players if you want an orchestra, for instance. 20 years ago we only had one orchestra. Now we have two. There was very little chamber music, and now it’s much more common. 

The internet was very important, of course, and through efforts like the concerto competition, we’re excited to see how far the level will increase 20 years from now. You can see the generational difference just in participation alone. In the top categories, we had perhaps 20 people total. But in the bottom three divisions we had over 70, and there’s a foundational difference in the overall skill level because of how many more teachers there are today. You can see that, in 10 years, that top category is going to be filled with great players. 

OM: How is music education evolving across the country?

Mahakit: Bangkok is the center of the nation, and because of that, everything tends to be here. Infrastructure can be very limited outside of the capital—for instance, this is the only place where there’s public transportation. 

However, there are musical scenes developing both to the north and south, and that’s why I love to travel. I didn’t have money growing up and I started playing in a church program, so going to more marginalized areas is very important to me. Even in affluent tourist areas, the locals often don’t have much money. There are also border areas with other countries that have had lots of conflict in the past, but it’s much better now. People I went to school with are exploring these areas, starting schools, creating youth orchestras, and doing the hard work it takes to get instruments into the hands of young people. 

OM: Tell us about the role chamber music plays in your career.

Mahakit: I perform with the faculty quartet all the time, and in that capacity, we give concerts for major arts organizations like the Siam Society. However, chamber music is also the perfect vehicle for outreach, and we do concerts with the quartet and piano trio in many places around the country for students and local teachers who are building their programs. 

For instance, we recently gave a performance in a province called Yala, which is at the very southern tip of the country on the border with Malaysia. A colleague started a music school down there in his hometown, and our piano trio gave a free concert and taught lessons. We had over 50 people there, and many of them were young students and their parents. 

Of course, there isn’t a concert stage in a lot of these regions! It’s hot, there’s no air conditioning, and it’s not what you think of when it comes to performing, but when you see their faces you know exactly why you’re there. That’s the work of building communities and developing your art. You feel like you did something—you changed something—and I remembered how much those opportunities inspired me when I was young. I hope to spark that in some of those students every time we visit. 

Thailand is changing its ideas about music. In the past, parents only wanted their children to be doctors or engineers. Now, they see that being a concert violinist is a real path to being exceptional. It’s a cultural value. And we need to support that by giving their children everything we know so they can take their dreams to the highest levels.

OM: You have a lot of international experience to bring back home. How does your time in Orvieto shape your work?

Mahakit: It’s incredibly important to travel as a musician, particularly to places like Italy where there’s so much musical history and culture. Going to Orvieto was an amazing experience, and it taught me a lot about both being a performer and a colleague. It was my first festival in Europe, and I loved being immersed in the culture. 

That’s not something you can learn in school, and it’s an invaluable experience to be able to bring back to students in Thailand who will hopefully go there themselves one day. You can’t get the same experience playing Vivaldi in an Indonesian-style temple, for instance–you have to be immersed in his architecture and his world to understand certain aspects of it. 

It reminds you how important it is to study the lives of the composers of the music you’re playing. Orvieto was an amazing opportunity, and one I hope my students will be able to have one day.