Photos: THE SAIGON ORCHESTRA
The Saigon Orchestra plays Western symphonies on traditional Vietnamese musical instruments every week at the HCMC Conservatory of Music in a program entitled The Rainbow Show. The contemporary instrumental program presents a subtle combination of Vietnamese and international music, bringing together Western symphonies and traditional Vietnamese music and instruments. Each show lasts 60 minutes, with 12 pieces logically arranged to use the musical language to tell the audience interesting tales about Vietnam and its people via the use of pictures screened on the stage’s backdrop.
People have long thought that symphony music is difficult to understand, given its academic and sometimes abstract nature. Traditional Vietnamese instruments, meanwhile, are only popular in certain regions of the country. For instance, the home of the khen is the northern mountainous area while gongs are popular in the central highlands.
The Rainbow Show, however, skilfully combines them all with symphonies to create a unique musical event. The language of music serves as a guide, taking audience members to different parts of Vietnam so they can enjoy a variety of cultural features.
The program begins with melodies from the north-western mountainous area on wind instruments popular among the Thai, H’mong and Nung ethnic minority people. Then audience is then taken down to the Red River Delta with Xoan melodies and local folk songs from the area before heading to the mountains of the central highlands and the exciting sounds of gongs.
Dances popular in central highlands heat up the space of the theatre, with the audience moving to the exciting sounds of the gongs and the dance.
The audience then ‘visits’ the former capital of Hue, admiring beautiful Hue women moving gracefully in the traditional Vietnamese costume, ao dai, and singing folk songs. The Mekong Delta is the next destination, with pleasing folk songs and don ca tai tu music, which was recognised by UNESCO in 2013 as an Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity.
The Rainbow Show proves that traditional Vietnamese instruments are in no way inferior to Western instruments. Scarcely anyone would have thought that traditional Vietnamese instruments like the dan bau (monochord), bamboo flute, the T’rung, or gongs would ever be combined with Western musical instruments in a great performance.
Musician Ngo Tuyet Mai, who has been dedicated to The Saigon Orchestra from its early days, said, ‘Practice is hard every day. We have made our best efforts over the last year and I can now see that the sounds from my T’rung instrument can mix beautifully with other instruments in a symphony and produce high-end music. Three T’rung instruments played together can create the greatest of sounds.’
BRINGING LIFE TO TRADITIONAL INSTRUMENTS
Musician Le Nhat Quang, the founder of The Saigon Orchestra and director and conductor of The Rainbow Show, is a professional pianist. He began to learning the piano when he was eight years old and graduated from the HCMC Conservatory of Music with a Master’s in music. He worked as a teacher there for ten years and has had five CDs and DVDs of solo piano performances released.
His passion for traditional music and his desire to make it better known around the world saw him quit teaching and found The Saigon Orchestra.
He began to cherish the idea of establishing The Saigon Orchestra when he once worked as a tour guide. He took some foreign visitors down to the Mekong Delta, where they listened to some don ca tai tu music, and when he asked them if they understood anything, they of course replied ‘no’.
He then began to think seriously about making foreign visitors interested in traditional Vietnamese music and enabling them to understand it. He dreamed of setting up a musical group using traditional Vietnamese instruments and playing a type of music Western visitors might enjoy, such as symphonies, as a way for them to get to know more about Vietnamese culture.
He selected popular Vietnamese and international songs, including world-famous symphonies. He even made improvements so that the pieces could be easily performed by his orchestra. The song list includes Sunshine by Le Nhat Quang, Czardas by Monti, Nocturne by Son Mach, The Solveig’s Song by Grieg, Toccata, Fugue and Ave Maria by Bach, Somewhere Over the Rainbow by Harold Arlen, Viens M’embrasser by Julio Iglesias, and Medley and Saigon Dep Lam (Beautiful Saigon) by Y Van.
‘I’ve chosen a pretty strange way of fulfilling my dream of using traditional Vietnamese instruments along with symphonic instruments, combining Vietnamese melodies with European classical music and contemporary European and American styles so that international audiences can enjoy our performances,’ Quang said. ‘I believe that The Rainbow Show is not only a musical concert but also a dialogue in the language of music. I hope that international audiences not only find the program fascinating but can also better understand Vietnamese musical instruments and Vietnamese culture, nature and people.’
The Rainbow Show gives the audience an interesting new experience, with performances not just about music and songs arranged in different parts, like in a symphony theatre. The space brings everyone close together, so they can clap their hands and move their arms and bodies while singing along.
Its success is best evidenced by the signing of a six-month contract with the HCMC Conservatory of Music running from October to March, when a dozen shows a month will be performed. This is a rare music group in HCMC with a tight performance schedule, given its young age.
The Saigon Orchestra was established by musician Le Nhat Quang just over a year ago and has more than 50 musicians and singers, including an Eastern European musician and a K Ho ethnic musician from the central highlands province of Lam Dong.
Apart from famous musicians like T’rung player Ngo Tuyet Mai and singer Nhat Ha, The Rainbow Show mainly selects performers from the HCMC Conservatory of Music because its musicians and singers are well-qualified and have a good knowledge of symphonies.
Quang tests candidates by letting them play in the group and chooses the best in particular types of instruments and performance.
By Ngoc Linh