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Tra Nguyen
Tra Nguyen at the end
of her performance

Concert review - Ho Chi Minh City

Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam: Sunday 18 August 2008
How delightful to be back in the bustling and vibrant city of Saigon (as the locals still call it) just a year after my first visit, and how wonderful to have the prospect of hearing another major Raff score getting its modern premiere. Last year the Ho Chi Minh City Ballet Symphony Orchestra’s Autumn Melodies series featured a fizzing virtuoso performance of the Piano Concerto by the Vietnamese pianist Tra Nguyen. The acclaim with which both she and that work were received by audience and orchestra alike, together with her own enthusiasm for Raff’s music, clearly persuaded the series promoters that there wasn’t too much risk in programming the Suite for Piano and Orchestra as the closing work for this year’s season of three concerts. Indeed they did Raff proud, uniquely affording him two pages in a series programme which otherwise concentrated on performer profiles. The likes of Brahms, Mendelssohn and Dvorák had to make do with a credit in the concert listings. There was even a mention of Raff and Tra Nguyen in Vietnam Airlines’ in-flight magazine!

As the city’s Opera House was undergoing repairs, this year’s concerts were held in the concert hall of the Ho Chi Minh City Conservatory, a fine classical building which boasts better acoustics than the previous venue. As last year the concert was being televised, which meant that each item was introduced in Vietnamese and English by a pair of announcers. It was not a live broadcast, however, so the presence of cameras was blessedly rather less intrusive than in 2007. After ten minutes of presentations to graduating  music students and thanks to local dignitaries,  the music got underway with a nicely played, but dreadfully slow, rendition of the first movement of Saint-Saëns’ Second Piano Concerto in G minor. The young soloist, Tran Thi Tam Ngoc, played it with much sensitivity but her rhapsodic approach risked tedium and left the orchestra, under Singaporean guest conductor Chan Tze Law, little to do for the long stretches between the tutti. This was a shame because Miss Tran is clearly a musician of real promise. What orchestral contribution there was showed that the HCMC Ballet Symphony Orchestra were a much improved band over last year, with the brass and winds in particular playing with more confidence and real attack.

Next up was a rarity to match Raff. Giovanni Bottesini was a 19th. century double bass virtuoso and composer and it was his one movement Second Concerto in B minor which was the showcase for Tran Duc Minh. This likeable work, which lasted around 15 minutes, was taken at a lively pace and maestro Chan was able to show off his ability to make the most of Bottesini’s sometimes unimaginatively thin orchestration. As a soloist, Tran seemed to be a little overawed by the occasion, playing with a diffidence and lack of projection which were quite missing from his more confident rehearsal, which I’d been lucky enough to attend earlier in the day.

Zhou Mi, the cellist who closed the first half, had chosen to play the glorious first movement of Dvorák’s Cello Concerto and she gave it her all, as did the orchestra. Taking the work at quite a sprightly pace, her passionate and utterly involved playing was matched by a sweeping and full bodied orchestral contribution which was a credit to conductor Chan. All in all, this was a fine performance by all concerned which left one wanting more.

For the second half the orchestra’s own chief conductor Tran Vuong Thach took over the baton for Praying, a short work for percussion and strings by the Vietnamese composer Vu Viet Anh. The Korean soprano Cho Hye Ryoung next sang the ardent and melodious Song of Hope by another Vietnamese composer Van Ky and that old favourite, Juliet’s Je veux vivre from Gounod’s Romeo et Juliette. Both were delightfully performed and the generous applause she received was well deserved.

The rest of the second half was given over to the landmark performance of Raff’s five movement Suite for Piano and Orchestra by Nguyen Bich Tra, to give her her full Vietnamese name. She is well known to audiences here and her warm reception spoke volumes for the regard in which they hold this fine artist. She has a commanding presence on the platform, exuding confidence and professionalism from the moment that she takes her welcoming bow. Having already played quite a demanding programme, I was fearful that the orchestra would have tired by this time, as indeed they had at the morning’s rehearsal. Rising to the occasion, though, they played the opening bars of the Introduktion & Fugue with a confidence and precision which they maintained throughout the 40 minute work. Tra’s glittering entry set the scene for the opening movement too: broad but not too slow, almost as if she was gathering her thoughts for the journey to come, which was heralded by her launch into the fugue itself. No dry exercise this, the interplay between soloist and orchestra was very nicely judged by maestro Tran. Understanding that a Raff opening movement must have momentum, no matter how arresting the melodies are or how diverting the orchestration is, this interpretation moved at a good pace even though one was often open mouthed at the dexterity of some of Tra’s finger work. Although the orchestra had a lot to do, often carrying the argument and seldom merely accompanying the soloist, this was undoubtedly a soloist’s showcase and Tra rose to the challenge.

The succeeding Menuette can be a problem. It has one of Raff’s most beguiling ideas: a barcarole-like melody to which he returns several times (and which is recalled in the finale). There is also a second theme of great delicacy but it also features some less subtle and potentially pompous martial music. In the only recording I have of this work, these elements just don’t gel. Here, Nguyen and Tran made the contrast work in a most effective way through intelligent variation of dynamic, tempo and phrasing. The “barcarole” was an utter delight, played with sensitivity but not lingered over so that, no matter how many times Raff repeated it, one wanted to hear more, whilst the interrupting call to attention of the martial music prevented the movement lapsing into sentimentality.

The flighty third movement, Gavotte & Musette, passed in a flurry of notes. It might perhaps have been taken a trifle faster, but full marks to the orchestra for coping with writing of no mean difficulty. By this stage one was so used to the standard of Tra’s pianism that it almost goes without saying that she coped with the challenges of this high spirited but demanding movement with aplomb, not just bringing to it the excitement of playing the outer sections with such technical prowess, but also pouring so much poetry into the slower Musette.

After a brief pause when we were entertained by someone’s Nokia moment, the orchestra’s strings sounded momentarily thin at the start of the magical Cavatine but soon recovered to usher in its glorious principal melody, here infused by Tra with a deeply thoughtful and faintly regretful air before momentarily brightening as a prelude to the orchestra taking over the spotlight. Although Raff’s use of counterpoint throughout the work is masterful, he surpassed himself in this gem of a movement in which soloist and orchestra share the honours to moving effect.

Tra dominated the playful finale, however. She routinely punctuated the orchestra’s strutting material with dazzling runs and commanding cascades of notes complementing the puckish humour of her rather more lyrical passages. In contrast her long cadenza, heralded by that barcarole melody from the second movement, was a demonstration of virtuoso playing of real sincerity and subtlety, each changing moods passing in a few brief bars. Rejoining her, the orchestra keep pace valiantly as she dashed pell mell for the rousing end, to which the audience responded with a thoroughly deserved extended ovation, continuing as she was presented with a mountain of flowers as the TV presenters signed off.

I had only known this piece from a much played Swiss radio recording but was struck by how flat and “safe” that familiar rendition was by comparison with this nuanced, intelligent and passionate reading of one of Raff’s most pleasing and melodious major works. Once again, we should be grateful to Tra Nguyen and the HCMC Ballet Symphony Orchestra for their commitment to Raff and for showing that, with careful preparation and intelligent and committed interpretation, Raff’s music can stand unapologetic comparison with that of his romantic peers.

Yet another triumph for Tra, whose recording of the work we can now eagerly anticipate. I guarantee that it will not disappoint.

Mark Thomas

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