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In praise of the extraordinary Stephane Tran Ngoc
Bradley Winterton
Friday,  Jul 21, 2017,21:27 (GMT+7)

In praise of the extraordinary Stephane Tran Ngoc

Bradley Winterton

On Wednesday I attended one of the finest concerts I have ever been to in thirty years of concert-going.

It was in some ways a strange event because it got better and better as it progressed. Its main feature was that the soloist was an artist of outstanding talent, the Paris-born violinist Stephane Tran Ngoc.

His playing had all the virtues, plus more besides. He was quietly sensitive, and no bravura showman. Yet at other times he was the epitome of dazzling technical brilliance, leading me not infrequently to gasp in amazement. He also had a concentration and imaginative sympathy that illuminated a work that might have been thought to be beyond illumination, displayed in a most extraordinary way in the item that occupied the second half of the evening in the Opera House in downtown HCMC.

This item was Peteris Vasks’s Concerto for violin and string orchestra “Distant Light”. This might at first sight have seemed barely accessible post-modernism. Not a bit of it. In Stephane Tran Ngoc’s hands, plus those of the conductor Tran Vuong Thach, it became a work of mesmerizing intensity and beauty. I began skeptical and ended amazed.

This was all the more astonishing because the first half of the program had been devoted to Vivaldi’s exceptionally well-known Four Seasons concertos, which Stephane Tran Ngoc both played in as soloist and conducted. These four works may have been inventive in their own day, you felt by the concert’s end, but they paled almost into insignificance beside Petris Vask’s accomplishment.

I have said that the evening got better and better, and so it did, because after the Vask was over Stephane Tran Ngoc treated us to, not one, but two encores. The first was a quiet but dense movement from one of Bach’s partitas for solo violin, moving enough by any reckoning, but it was the second that really raised the goose bumps.

This was one of Paganini’s caprices, deliberately penned to be some of the most difficult violin works ever written. In front of an audience tense with anticipation, Stephane Tran Ngoc played it with breath-taking aplomb, leaping from one violin string to another, from piano to forte and back again, and a hundred other seeming impossibilities. I don’t think I have ever been so excited and impressed.

Of course, this was just what Paganini intended, and he wrote the pieces to perform himself and display his own, at the time, unprecedented talents. But Stephane Tran Ngoc must be his equal, I thought – and I imagine not a few other audience members thought the same. It was significant that conductor and HBSO Director, Tran Vuong Thach, himself trained as a violinist, stayed behind on stage to hear this out-of-this-world rendition.

This was, by its end, a concert of a lifetime, and despite the heavy rain an hour before it began, leading me to ascend the Opera House steps barefoot (a first for me), I wouldn’t have missed it for the world.

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