Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam: Friday 17 August 2007
It is difficult to think of a more unlikely scenario for what is probably the first concert performance of Raff’s Piano Concerto in getting on for 100 years, than that it should be the centrepiece of a prestigious concert, broadcast live on TV, in the historic Opera House of Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam (or Saigon, as the locals still call it). That it should be so is down to the enthusiastic advocacy of Raff’s music by the young London-based Vietnamese virtuoso Tra Nguyen, who chose the work as her showpiece in this opening night of the city’s Autumn Colours festival, which showcases the talents of Vietnamese artists who have made their names abroad.
Despite a century as a French colonial capital, Saigon has no real tradition of western art music. This cosmopolitan city of over 5m people cannot support a full-time symphony orchestra; its Ho Chi Minh City Ballet & Symphony Orchestra is a scratch band composed of teachers and other music professionals. However, my fear that I’d have to resort in this review to patronising phrases making allowances for their amateurishness were soon dispelled after a few minutes of the rehearsal, which I was privileged to attend. Whilst they wouldn’t pretend to have the polish of a Chicago Symphony Orchestra, these were enthusiastic professionals, committed to giving of their best and capable of turning in as good a performance as many I’ve heard from European provincial orchestras, and much better than a recent dismal experience in Belgium.
Saigon’s French colonial-style Opera House is a fine, compact venue which was gorgeously bedecked with tropical flowers for this opening concert of the season. The event was televised live, which involved the very intrusive presence of five TV cameras and their staff, some of which roamed around the auditorium and poked out from the wings during the performance. Despite a prominent notice forbidding photography, there were at least eleven “official” photographers moving around, too, and their constantly clicking shutters of course encouraged the rest of the audience to get out their cameras. So whilst it was hardly the Royal Festival Hall, this was clearly an “event”. To emphasise this, before the music started we were treated to an extended ceremony in which the concert was introduced for the TV audience, the series sponsors were thanked and given presents on stage and, finally, young musicians were honoured and paraded. This took around ten minutes, during which the half of the audience missing when the event began and wiser in the ways of Vietnam than we were, filtered quietly into their seats to make it a full house.
The first piece was by Vietnamese composer Thuong Nguyen. Tro ve Dat Me (Return to the Homeland) is for two solo violins, strings and piano and lasted just over six minutes; it has become a tradition to play it at the start of this series honouring overseas Vietnamese performers. It is a gentle evocation of feelings on homecoming written in a totally accessible and thoroughly tonal idiom, familiar to anyone who has heard the “Oriental” piano concertos and other works by Japanese and Chinese composers, which were briefly fashionable in the 1970s. The familiar palette of mildly oriental harmonies laid lightly on a canvas of generic western TV or film music was recognisable from countless travelogues. The two soloists Minh Tran and Viet Anh were difficult to distinguish in the hall’s sometimes muddy acoustic and conductor Phi Phi Le did his best to inject some life into a pleasant but otherwise unmemorable piece.
The bulk of the first half was taken up with a very competent and satisfyingly dramatic performance of Schubert’s Eighth Symphony. The “Unfinished” can often sound bland and over-familiar, but not here where it had plenty of bite and its fair share of dark shadows. Le led his players in a well judged rendition which provided not only plenty of light and shade within each movement, but also managed to inject worthwhile contrast between the two. The strings, which had sounded rather thin in rehearsal, managed to find the necessary weight in performance to give the reading real authority and substance. All in all, a rewarding experience.
The concert’s second half was given over entirely to Raff’s concerto, a risk few western concert promoters would have dared take for fear that they’d be left with no audience when the intermission bells rang. Not so here, for Tra Nguyen clearly has a following in Saigon; one which it soon became obvious is richly deserved. From her very first notes, she totally dominated the platform. Confident and commanding, she delivered an opening Allegro which was by turns heroic and melting, ardent and pensive. Although the hall’s acoustic is rather flattening, tending to level the sound , Le managed to encourage his players so that theirs was not merely an accompanying role and, even when Nguyen was pounding out her considerable fortissimo, the effectiveness of Raff’s orchestration was seldom lost. The most telling section of the movement, however, was Nguyen’s lengthy solo cadenza, in which she managed an almost imperceptible gradation from initial wistful tendresse to final forceful bravado with riveting panache. Although applause at the end of each movement is frowned upon in the West, here it seemed entirely appropriate after such a display of thrillingly intelligent pianism.
The central Andante, quasi Larghetto initially showcases the orchestra whilst the soloist busies herself with figurations. In this unfamiliar music, they did well in the spotlight and, as throughout the work, Le’s judgment in the purely orchestral sections was entirely appropriate. Raff’s melodies are particularly sumptuous is this, the finest movement of the work, and his use of them in building the contrapuntal climax has to be the Concerto’s high spot, calculated to tug at the heart strings if the performers pull out all the stops. This was once regarded as one of the great romantic piano concertos after all. Here composer, conductor and soloist got things exactly right; heart strings were duly tugged and stops pulled out all the way, in a performance which didn’t stint on intensity. The beautifully controlled ebbing away of the closing cadence was the signal for applause which was much more than just dutiful. Of course, the performers rightly were being rewarded for fin music making, but it was clear that due appreciation was being shown to Raff and his genius, too.
The closing Allegro prompted an appropriately barnstorming performance from Nguyen which showcased her impressive technique in runs and trills of stunning speed and accuracy. It’s fair to say that the orchestra were getting tired by now and Le’s quite proper appreciation of the need for a generally fast tempo in this movement tripped them up momentarily on a couple of occasions, but such was the flow of the music and the sheer power of Nguyen’s playing that these slips were insignificant. The moments of repose were all the more effective when they came, and if a little more subtlety amongst the tempi might have given the finale greater character, the sheer enthusiasm of the performers ensured that the audience’s reception of Nguyen at the close must have been every bit as rapturous as she could have dared hope for.
The night undoubtedly belonged to Nguyen, who showed herself to be a virtuoso capable of coupling power with poetry and intelligence with a commanding technique. It takes nothing away from her success to point out that Raff could also hold his head high. Here, half a world away from Wiesbaden and two lifetimes after it was written, his Piano Concerto was still capable of proving a palpable hit amongst an enthusiastic and unprejudiced audience hearing it for the first time.
Tra Nguyen’s is a name to look out for. On this showing she has a great future and it is particularly satisfying, therefore, that such an accomplished artist should have developed an enthusiasm for Raff’s forgotten works. Rumours of a project for her to record more Raff should be welcomed with huge enthusiasm.