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Tuesday,  Oct 24,2017,16:25 (GMT+7)

In paradise indeed

Bradley Winterton
Tuesday,  Nov 1,2016,22:41 (GMT+7)
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In paradise indeed

Bradley Winterton

Artists perform at “In Paradisum” concert on Saturday night in HCMC - PHOTO: DUY TAN

Saturday saw a major event in the HCMC’s Opera House. Entitled “In Paradisum”, it was a concert by HBSO featuring a visiting French violinist of Vietnamese ancestry, Pham Vinh, plus a visiting French choir together with their renowned conductor.

Two magnificent works were scheduled, Mendelssohn’s Violin Concerto and Bach’s Magnificat (from which “In paradisum”, meaning “in paradise”, looks like a quotation but isn’t). But before these, another work was due to be performed, Linh Giac by Nguyen Thien Dao.

The Opera House was 90% full, and I at least awaited Linh Giac with intense curiosity. It transpired that the composer represented another French connection, having been living in France up to his death last year. It was no accident, then, that Pham Vinh took to the stage early to play various solo violin passages in the work which he’d presumably been used to playing back in France.

Linh Giac began with a single thin violin note and then expanded to being a 20-minute work for full choir and orchestra, including a soprano soloist (Pham Khanh Ngoc) and prominent tubular bells. It reminded me at first of Delius’ A Mass of Life, then became reminiscent of Messiaen. Here was clearly an inventive and versatile composer involved with a major composition. I’ve since learned that Nguyen Thien Dao was actually a student on Messiaen’s, and a composer who had a major influence on contemporary music back home in his native Vietnam.

Mendelssohn’s ever-popular Violin Concerto was characterized early on by Pham Vinh suffering from a broken string on his violin. He and the conductor disappeared off-stage, but less than a minute later returned with everything fixed.

This was in every way an exceptional performance. Pham Vinh had a striking, occasionally restless, on-stage presence, and he proved the perfect soloist for what can in other hands sound an over-sweet work. What it needed was an injection of passion and musical bravura, and this was precisely what Pham Vinh provided. Saturday’s audience was lucky indeed to hear him, and responded with appropriate enthusiasm, resulting in a Bach encore. Mendelssohn, as Pham said in his only on-stage words, loved Bach.

And so what could be more appropriate than Bach’s Magnificat after the interval? This 40-minute work is a setting of the words from the Latin version of the Bible that Mary utters after she learns she is to be the mother of God’s son. They have proved popular with church composers over the centuries, and Bach set them several times, sometimes with added hymns. The version we heard was the standard one, fixed in the 19th century at the time Mendelssohn was busy introducing Bach’s music to a previously unaware public.

For the five Vietnamese soloists, plus the HBSO Choir, not to mention the Ensemble Polyphonique de Choisy-le-Roi from France, to sing in Latin was some achievement. Generally the result was excellent, though I could at times have done with more volume and attack from the soloists. Guest conductor Laurent Boer oversaw the work, and indeed the whole program, with dignity and aplomb, helping to make this truly a memorable evening in Saigon’s musical life. Luckily there was no reference to Hallowe’en, and it was a shock to go afterwards from this to the thumping inanities of a local discotheque.

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