Sunday, 10 August 2014


Ho Chi Minh City Ballet 
Symphony Orchestra and Opera
Saturday (9 August 2014)

A visit to Ho Chi Minh City, or Saigon as it used to be known, would be incomplete if one did not visit its iconic Opera House. Built in the late 1890s by the French, it is one of the city’s architectural landmarks located in the heart of the historic civic centre within District 1. The Municipal Theatre, as it is called today, is home to all sorts of cultural events, including theatre, ballet and symphonic concerts. I had the fortune to witness two events during my trip to HCMC in August.

The first was the AO Show, a Cirque du Soleil-styled choreographed show with a distinct Vietnamese accent, one which was a reflection of Vietnam’s transition from rural country life to city life, with all its joys and vicissitudes. Thankfully there was nothing patriotic or socialist about the message, just good clean fun and some cunning stunts. The wonders what people could do with a load of baskets and poles. The second was the prime reason why I came to Saigon, to watch a concert by the Ho Chi Minh City Ballet Symphony Orchestra and Opera (or HBSO for short). Its cumbersome and long title is reflective of its status as a state-run professional orchestra that served the city’s ballet, opera and concert life, and its resident status in the Opera House.

The Opera House has an imposing but elegant exterior, graced by neoclassical sculptures, friezes and pillars, only partly matched by its relatively small chandelier-lit foyer, leading into a high-ceilinged medium-sized auditorium with just one circle gallery. It is nevertheless an intimate space where nothing seems too far from the stage. The main bugbear is the lack of proper sound-proofing, and one is always reminded of the city’s chaotic traffic and non-stop counterpoint of vehicular klaxons. The total absence of governmental, official, socialist party symbols or Uncle Ho portraits is however a relief. Here is a true temple for the fine arts rather than one serving a cult of personality or ideology.    

The HBSO reminded me of the Singapore Symphony Orchestra in its young years of 1979 and the early 1980s. This is not meant to be derogatory, after all everybody has to start somewhere. When the SSO came into being in 1979, Vietnam had recently prevailed in the “American War”, invaded Cambodia, and was in turn attacked by China (which was repelled as usual), and had sent  thousands of “boat people” fleeing to parts unknown. Not the best time to nurture the western classical arts, but Vietnam produced Dang Thai Son, the first Asian pianist to win the Chopin International Piano Competition in 1980 (and beating the likes of Ivo Pogorelich). However the HBSO could be proud of being 100% Vietnamese – every seat held in the orchestra is a local.

There was a slight change in the programme conducted by Macedonia-based Vietnamese conductor Le Phi Phi. Debussy’s Prelude a l’apres-midi dun faune had been replaced by Beethoven’s Egmont Overture, which made sense in a concert titled Beethoven’s Symphony No.5.  The work opened at a very deliberate pace, one which left the sections relatively exposed. The woodwinds sounded thin and anaemic, but as the piece picked up pace and volume, the faculties came together for a strong and invigorating finish. An encouraging start, which gave a clue what Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony would sound like later. The hall’s acoustics were on a dry side but not overly so, and orchestral details were quite well discerned. I was seated in the second row from the front, and would have very much liked to experience the sound in the circle seats, but this was a sold-out concert with little chance of switching seats.

Boris Kraljevic performed the primo part
of Poulenc's Double Piano Concerto.

The concerto of the evening was Francis Poulenc’s Concerto for Two Pianos, with Montenegrin Boris Kraljevic (now resident in Singapore) and Vietnamese Le Hai Ho (head of piano at the Saigon Conservatory) as duo soloists. The orchestra took a back seat to the escapades of the keyboardists in the charmingly insouciant work that could be described as “Mozart goes to Bali via Paris). Both pianists played on Steinway Ds, and their sound stood out as direct, incisive and clear. The neoclassical lines were well-delineated, and the tongue-in-cheek humour was played up for all its worth. The slow movement’s quasi-Romanze alla Mozart was beautifully crafted while the gamelan-sequences (all the craze among French composers) dreamily realised.

The mad-cap finale had moments of uncertainly as the pianists came to grips with the rapidly repeated notes and scintillating scale runs, but there was no risk of the express coming off the rails. Poulenc’s habit of teasing with a delectable melody and then dropping it for another tune was all the more apparent as the razor-fine responses of both soloists adapted to yet another change of fancy in this roller-coaster ride full of hairpin twists and turns. The audience clearly loved this, and was rewarded with more Poulenc – his tipsy and sentimental waltz La embarquement pour Cythere.    

The second half belonged to the titular Fifth Symphony of Beethoven, a performance that raised expectations and did not disappoint. Conductor Le took a moderate approach to the iconic first movement with its “Fate knocking at the door” motif. It was not hurried nor did it lumber on like some Teutonic maestros of old. It was a pace that the orchestra was comfortable with, yet one that delivered well its impactful fist-shaking message. The solo oboe was excellent in that lingering phrase that allowed everyone to catch their breath.

The slow movement proved the greatest challenge to the ensemble, again exposing some of its frailties in sustaining longer phrases and lines. Yet its variations were well presented, rolled out with a clear narrative in mind, leading to the pacier goose-stepping of the Scherzo. The tempo was maintained on a tight leash which made the sense of release in the triumphant finale all the more joyous. Every orchestra, especially the brass, enjoys giving their all in this movement, and HBSO was no exception. The exuberance, which made up for the shortfall in subtlety, was not in expense of discipline and order. Conductor Le ensured that any tendency to wildness or speed-racing was held in check and the movement (and ultimately the symphony) got the gravitas and grandeur it deserved. The overall view of the conception was one of total coherence, and the passion of a certain Ludwig van Beethoven – from angry defiance to unmitigated victory -  came to full fruition in this outing.

The HBSO will not be hailed as one of Asia’s great orchestras yet, but there is time and scope to reach for the skies. Given the rapid development of Vietnam, evidence by the sprouting skyscrapers, designer-label downtown shopping plazas, and dust-churning building going on in front of Lam Son Square, a bright future beckons for the arts as the nation finds its entrepreneurial middle class and arts-loving bourgeoisie again. Uncle Ho – who has been captured conducting some ensemble in a famous black and white photograph – would not be too displeased.         

Saigon Opera House by night.

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