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An enigmatic variation: European orchestral music in HCMC

Vietnam Heritage, September-October 2011 -- Vietnam Heritage was a sponsor of Autumn Melodies (Giai Điệu Mùa Thu, in Vietnamese) 2011, and its full-page advertisement for the three-night series – symphony orchestra, ballet and opera – was well done though it presented an image that was sparse and innocent, with a picture of a violin and ballet feet in pumps but no opera-singing wife. I propose a reader could not have expected, on the first of the three nights, the one I attended, the usual, in a different, European-cultured country, quantum of musicianship from the orchestra, by European standards. Rather, she could have looked forward to a Vietnamese experience, something no less enlightening.
As Vietnam Heritage reported in the July-August edition, on page 37, the whole country has no more than seventy-something thousand foreigners working in it, or the population of a very small city, and more than half are from Asian societies, with their own music. What is the world’s smallest city with a symphony orchestra? And I don’t recall ever having read a review of European classical music (I mean symphony orchestra) in Vietnam and neither could our managing editor. Does Vietnam have a professional music critic in English? I am not one. And what happens to a symphony orchestra that does not get criticism in a European language? I don’t know that there are critics of European symphony concerts even in Vietnamese.
On the first evening of the three evenings of Autumn Melodies, 17 August, far more than half the seats were empty. And this at a small fraction of the ticket price for music in Europe. Where were the types on $10,000 a month who could afford and might appreciate good musicianship? What kind of orchestra can be expected where there is not vociferous demand for it? My wife, who is Vietnamese, was reluctant to attend, and left half-way, even though she is highly musical and interested in music, albeit basically Vietnamese modern music. It is seems she has never been convinced of the value of attending classical European music in Ho Chi Minh City, not even after almost a decade here. That seems odd, in a city of so much European architecture and food, to name two other arts.
Was there a time during the French colony when the Opera House induced the audience to act as if it were ‘attending’ the opera, in the fully pumped sense of the expression? I can imagine that once there might have been wooden floors and carpets, smelling of polish and wool, as at the Park Hyatt or the new, astonishing Celadon Palace hotel, in Hue. The Opera House’s icing-like, spirally worked proscenium arch, which appeared from my seat to be of white marble, would have been marvellously cooling to minds that had spent the day under a sola topi. There would have been sweat, but it would have been robust and respectable. Now, the air was cold, with a nasty downdraught every thirty seconds. In the aisles were skiddy tiles on a downward slope towards one’s seat, and they were underfoot when we sat. At interval, I rubbed shoulders, on a balcony, with four mops, standing person-height on their handles. There were two of one kind and two of another. They were interesting people, though of the silent, wall-flower variety, one of the pairs of twins with vertically falling locks, much as you would expect on conductors having a drink. On this balcony, around the cleaning gear, there was quite a lot of guano of some kind on a wall and litter on the floor.
These architectural details were all part of an adventure at a ‘symphony orchestra concert’ in Vietnam’s biggest city, put on in this very different country by the three-way consortium of the name I have given. For some of the
audience, it was exotica. Going to a concert can be like going to a Central Highland gathering with drums and gongs. Apparently some of the audience, or someone in the audience, had fired photographically using the flash, for someone in the front row, or close to it, of the audience stood up and turned round and pointed out the error – error from a certain perspective, that is. That the evening was to some extent a tourist destination was supported by the existence of a display of classical European musical instruments between the main entrance to the house and the auditorium, set out as in a museum of ethnic minorities.
Return to the Motherland (perhaps the name would not have such a redolence in the Vietnamese), by Nguyen Van Thuong, began melodically, yes, but slowly, to the point of lumbering, according to my sensibility. This may have been the intended effect, but was not the way I read the score, which, in spite of everything, we could pick up very well from the performance. Here and elsewhere in the concert, the players transmitted the score most carefully.
The Concerto for Violin and Chamber Orchestra (note the ‘chamber’), by Nguyen Manh Duy Linh, brought to me desolation and doom in deep notes, which, of themselves, were well done. The rising in relief from these was less impressive, less sym- (together) phonic (sound). The score explored the orchestra, as to variety of sounds, but to my mind there was a question about coherence and the clarity of  the composer’s aim. The composer seemed to me to be trying out orchestral effects, rather than making a finished statement or creating an overall atmosphere – but a riddle like this could have been precisely the intention, or I just did not understand, perhaps for cross-cultural reasons.
In the Symphony ‘Vang Son’, by Vu Viet Anh, with metal and wood wind and hefty drum sounds, the orchestra seemed not to transmit a firm enough mastery of the composition. We could have concluded by now that the orchestra was more intent on a pure reading of the scores rather than inhabiting them and expressing itself through them.
Part II of the concert opened with Grieg’s Peer Gynt Suite No 2. The music was more spelled out than occupied and conducted. Though the essences of the words ‘concerto’ and ‘orchestration’ came to mind in counterpoint, this is not to say a symphony orchestra in the unique position that is the Ho Chi Minh City Opera House, in its city, its country, should not take the care and responsibility for basics that was shown in this concert.
The final item on the program was Concerto for Violin, Piano and String Orchestra by Mendelssohn, and here we heard some commanding violin-playing from Tran Huu Quoc, who has presence and character as well as virtuosity. Neither he nor violinist Sergei Sivolgin, who also has character, of an opposite kind to Quoc’s – stringy, against bevelled – were able to be entirely in concerto with the orchestra, because it did not have their flow and confidence, but they made a very good fist of attacking this ideal. Very late on, the orchestra got into a more relaxed frame, especially in slow parts, which suit them, which, by now, they did not do too slowly.
It appeared to me that a speech unfortunately blocked the taking of a bow by the orchestra, after the star, Quoc, and ripsnorting pianist Cho Eun Young, at the end. Quoc’s pyrotechnic and humorous encore piece, and Quoc himself, made contact of a degree, though in the end it was of a kind a touch lightweight, with the audience that the orchestra itself would like to have tried, even at the end. The conductors, Tran Nhat Minh and Nguyen Anh Son, may have been up against almost as much of a challenge as the players in general were, and I mean the carrying off of a very European oeuvre in Ho Chi Minh City, a very small city in relation to this artefact. It would be interesting to know what HBSO’s stated aims are, against which performances could be critiqued; now the public knows just the advertising.
I had been to a concert at the Conservatorium of Music, in Nguyen Du Street, Ho Chi Minh City, and suffered from the very severe air-conditioning that is popular in Vietnam. At that concert, the musicians, on tour from Europe, expressed to the audience their discomfort in the cold, which is so unexpected in a tropical city. Goodness knows what the organisers of the concert thought of that night’s edification and entertainment. On the 17th, we re-entered HCMC afterward as if going from the pool to the sauna or as if brought out of enforced hibernation.
A symphony concert in this city is an adventure for all the participants we can identify as such – the audience, orchestra, conductors and visiting stars. Behind the scenes, somebody is saying that the policy is to get those scores into sound form correctly. This is appropriate for the demography. The one conclusion that I can make now is that another look needs to be taken at the climatology.

Reviewed by James Gordon
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