A red-haired Italian priest who wrote over 40 operas and a Latvian musician with strong environmentalist feelings – Saigon plays host to the music of both of these on July 19 in its magnificent Opera House.
The priest, of course, is Antonio Vivaldi, composer of the ever-popular The Four Seasons, the work we will hear on July 19.
The Latvian is Peteris Vasks, and his work will be his violin concerto Distant Light which won the Latvian Grand Music Award for 1997.
Seeing that The Four Seasons is a set of four concertos for violin and string orchestra, and that Distant Light is also a violin concerto for violin and string orchestra, the two make an admirable pairing.
Most important of all, perhaps, is that all five concertos will be played with violinist Stephane Tran Ngoc as soloist. And the importance of the event as a whole is marked by the evening’s conductor being the HBSO Music Director Tran Vuong Thach.
The HBSO rehearsal hall on Saigon’s Cach Mang Thang Tam has been newly and splendidly refurbished so that it now looks as if it could one day become an additional concert venue.
At a recent rehearsal it was buzzing and tingling with the sounds of Vivaldi, sweet yet astringent, intensely rhythmical and invariably incisive.
Stephane Tran Ngoc was rehearsing the orchestra in The Four Seasons when I arrived, while simultaneously of course playing the solo violin part. He lives in Denmark, he told me, and had already been in Saigon for several days.
After the break, he began work on Distant Light, though in the performance itself he will be the soloist in this work rather than the conductor. He told me the concerto was originally written for the famous violist Gidon Kremer, another Latvian, and that the publisher’s statistics showed it was performed almost weekly somewhere in the world.
He also said that, though nominally consisting of three movements, the concerto is played as if it’s in one continuous movement, i.e. without a break.
The sounds of this near-contemporary work were certainly different from those of the Vivaldi. What did the musicians think of it, I wondered. But as the orchestral string players explored its intricacies, it occurred to me that the task of musicians is not so much to evaluate what they are playing as to master its technical challenges. And this the HBSO players were certainly doing.
But Stephane Tran Ngoc remained at the center of attention, and how privileged it felt to be listening to the tones of this master musician on this hot Vietnamese morning. He didn’t even take a rest during the break, but went on working, going through passages of the Vivaldi with one of the cellists.
At the end he told me he was thinking of re-positioning the harpsichord so that its light tones in The Four Seasons could more readily be heard by the Opera House’s audience. This seemed right, even though there will only be some 22 musicians, all string players, on stage.
All in all, a stylish performance can be expected on July 19. The show starts at 8 p.m., and tickets are available from VND550,000 to VND200,000, with a special concession of VND80,000 for students.