HCMC – French composer Camille Saint-Saens died a hundred years ago last year and the Ho Chi Minh City Ballet, Symphony Orchestra and Opera (HBSO) will present a concert featuring two of his works on August 14 in the Saigon Opera House.
Saint-Saens has a special relationship with Vietnam. He visited the country in 1895 and stayed three months. While on the island of Con Dao, which he considered a paradise, he wrote the second half of an incomplete opera, Fredegonde. This was revived by HBSO in 2017, with French musician Patrick Souillot on the podium. This was only the second time Fredegonde had been staged, and the first time since its premier.
Saint-Saens was considered a major composer in his day, though something of a traditionalist in the face of the rising tide of modernism represented by Debussy and Ravel. He composed symphonies, concertos and operas, of which Samson and Delilah (1877) is the most famous). This opera was the first item produced when the Saigon Opera House opened its doors 122 years ago.
Bizet’s L’Arlesienne Suite Number 1 opens the program. Bizet wrote the accompanying music for Daudet’s stage play L’Arlesienne (the girl from Arles. a town in France) and subsequently made an orchestral suite out of the music. A second suite was completed by others after Bizet’s death.
The suite consists of 22 items, some extremely short. Bizet himself played the harmonium backstage in the premier.
Next comes Saint-Saens’ Carnival of Animals, probably his best-known work. It is written for chamber orchestra and two pianos, and has 14 movements. It is often performed in a version for full orchestra.
Saint-Saens considered the work frivolous and forbade its public performance during his lifetime. Its premier was in 1922, a year after his death, and was very well-received.
Its most famous movement features a solo cello and is called “the Swan”. Each movement represents a different animal, such as a tortoise, an elephant, a kangaroo and a cuckoo.
In Saigon the two pianos will be played by Nguyen Thuy Yen and Pham Nguyen Anh Vu.
After the interval there are three more compositions, Faure’s Pavane in F Sharp Minor, Saint-Saens’ Dans Macabre and Ravel’s Bolero.
Faure’s short piece – it only lasts eight minutes – has proved immensely popular. A pavane is a stately Spanish court dance. Faure was persuaded to make versions including a chorus and as an item for dancers. In addition, his juniors Debussy and Ravel both composed pavanes of their own.
Saint-Saen’s Dans Macabre is a sort of “dance of death” designed to be played at Hallowe’en. It opens with the hour of twelve being played on a harp and closes with the cock’s crow, symbolizing the dawn, played by an oboe. A xylophone is featured to represent the rattling of dead bones.
Finally comes Ravel’s famous piece, Bolero.
A bolero is another Spanish dance. Ravel wondered what the effect would be if the melody was endlessly repeated after he had tapped it out with one finger on a piano for a friend. The result was originally a piece of ballet music but these days it is more often plated as an orchestral piece.
The piece was hugely successful from the beginning. Toscanini conducted the US premier in 1929 to rapturous applause.
The concert will be conducted by Le Phi Phi. After graduating from the Moscow Tchaikovsky Conservatory he became the permanent conductor of the Macedonian Philharmonic Orchestra, while conducting all over Europe as well as back home in Vietnam.
The event begins at 8 p.m.