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Memories of a Saigon childhood

Bradley Winterton
Monday,  May 22,2017,22:35 (GMT+7)
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Memories of a Saigon childhood

Bradley Winterton

A scene of Touching the Past modern ballet - PHOTO: HBSO

Friday evening saw the premier in the Saigon Opera House of a new symphony by the eminent Vietnamese composer Vinh Lai. I had little idea what to expect, but in the event it proved absolutely stunning.

This is the kind of music that everyone can love. Eastern and Western musical traditions combined to make an experience that was always harmonious and invariably interesting. Pulsating rhythms combined with what sounded like local melodies – and how appropriately, considering the work was entitled “Saigon – City of my Childhood” (Sai Gon – Thanh pho tuoi tho toi).

The new work was in three movements depicting the Vietnamese Tet holiday as traditionally observed. The first movement was set on the day prior to New Year’s Eve, the second on the Eve itself, and the last on the first day of the Lunar New Year.

This gave the symphony something of the structural form of a Western classical symphony, albeit in three rather than four movements. But three-movement symphonies were common enough. All Mozart’s early symphonies had three movements, not four, and he continued to use the three-movement form as late as his Prague Symphony, number 38 out of a total of 41.

This new symphony by Vinh Lai is a huge achievement, both for the 78-year-old composer and for Vietnam. The opening movement set the tone – Puccini-like melodiousness without any hint of dissonance, or of rhythmical irregularity for that matter.

A languid, but again intensely melodic, and longer, second movement followed, encapsulating all the hushed, even holy, anticipation of a New Year’s Eve. The euphoria of the third movement took the form of march-like rhythms and triumphant, open air, band-like enthusiasm.

In this way the sequence of classical Western symphonies was followed – intellectual, slow, then fast. All in all, it was an ingenious, and indeed a superb, achievement. The HBSO instrumentalists played with great clarity, and the conductor, Tran Nhat Minh, was clearly highly sympathetic to the new music.

This symphony should be recorded immediately. And who better qualified to record it than the Ho Chi Minh Ballet and Symphony Orchestra?

After the interval we saw a revival of the ballet Touching the Past, premiered in 2013 and choreographed by Nguyen Phuc Hai and Nguyen Phuc Hung to recorded music by Henryk Gorecki, Philip Glass and Vu Viet Anh.

It featured barefoot dancers and many fine images projected onto a cyclorama – planets, stars and comets, plus other potent effects such as a stream of words issuing from a dancer’s mobile phone. This cyclorama turned out to be a gauze though which other dancers could be seen when they were appropriately lit.

The story concerned young lovers suffering under the impact of war. Males dressed in khaki combat fatigues cavorted splendidly, then left the stage, while girls dressed in red and black waved them goodbye and anxiously awaited their return. The only stage property was a sloping board down which dancers variously slid and rolled.

Not all the action was equally engrossing. A long episode in the middle involving the girls alone could, for instance, have been shorter. I found myself only half agreeing with the Vietnamese man sitting next to me who complained he couldn’t fully understand the plot.

Even so, this was an appropriately different piece with which to complete the program after the wonderful experience of the new symphony. In addition, it made for an all-Vietnamese evening.

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