Over the last decade classical music in Vietnam has been making unprecedented strides. The Vietnam National Symphony Orchestra is now touring extensively to Asia, Europe, and even the US. The HCMC Ballet Symphony Orchestra and Opera is starting to stage large-scale productions and the conservatory and music academies are emerging as important music venues. Yet for young musicians to develop and get the chance to play music rather than spend their time just studying it, and to immerse themselves in a supportive environment that aids their development, they have to travel overseas.
This is something that musician and former broadcast journalist, Tran Nguyet Sa, is trying to change. Hanoi-born, Saigon-raised, last summer her project Saigon Chamber Music came to fruition. Bringing together 19 young musicians from around the country, over one week in early August the virtuosos studied with a faculty of three international musicians — Tra Bich Nguyen, Zoe Martlew and Atle Sponberg — attended lectures, master classes and talks, and finished off with a public performance at the Ho Chi Minh City Conservatory of Music.
“The first edition of Saigon Chamber Music exceeded all expectations,” says Sa. “The young musicians were extremely committed. They improved every day, and never wasted any learning opportunity. Coming out from the intensive week, most of [them] had a better awareness of themselves and their music in a larger context of ensemble playing. Their sound changed beautifully just after a couple of sessions.”
Now, together with Arts for Mobility, Sa is upping the ante. On Oct. 25, the same virtuosos who attended the first edition of Saigon Chamber Music will play at Ho Chi Minh City Opera House. Not only does this provide an unrivalled setting for these musicians to perform in, but in doing so they will be helping raise much needed funds for Kids First. Based in Dong Ha in Quang Tri, among other activities Kids First distributes wheelchairs to individuals who, through the use of a wheelchair, will provide sustainability for themselves and their families.
Building a Dream
Having both worked and studied extensively overseas — at one point she was a journalist for the BBC World Service in London — Sa first got her idea for starting Saigon Chamber Music in 2008 after finishing a course in arts management at the Kennedy Center for Performing Arts in the US. Feeling “renergised and inspired to do things differently” she visited Yellow Barn Music Festival in Vermont and Kneisel Hall Music Festival in Maine.
“Both Yellow Barn and Kneisel Hall have lovely campuses situated in… woodlands, and the musical environment they build for the participants is stunning,” she recalls. “Classes and rehearsals in the day, concerts in the evening, community outreach activities, music talks and master classes. It all feels natural and fun. Everyone comes to live music for five weeks and it would not be hard to imagine their musicality leap forward after such an experience.”
While recreating such an environment in modern-day Vietnam is still a distant dream, the first edition of Saigon Chamber Music was an important step in the right direction. Yet it wasn't without its challenges.
Approaching Vietnam’s music academies, “the first and biggest challenge was to reach out to the young musicians and get them excited about what Saigon Chamber Music can bring to them,” explains Sa, fully aware of how new this concept was and still is to Vietnam. “And that led to the second challenge of not scaring them away from the commitment to a full schedule. It was summer time, and we asked them to be in school from 8.30am until 5.30pm or even 6pm, every day for a whole week.”
Through all of this, and through the application and audition process, the questions that Sa and her team constantly kept in mind were “how do we help the young musicians? How do we make this a winning experience for them?”
“As we were doing this for the first time in Vietnam, we certainly wanted to send out a message of encouragement rather than judgement.”
By all accounts, the concert on Aug. 8 was a phenomenal success with all 19 musicians proving themselves adept on the big stage. Most importantly was the improvement they all demonstrated from their week of mentoring. Sa hopes to build on the programme’s initial success.
“My short term goal for Saigon Chamber Music is to grow it as an annual event in the conservatory’s calendar,” she says. “And in the long term I hope it will become a summer rendez-vouz for young musicians in Vietnam and the region.”
She adds: “In a country of over 90 million, there is room for development. I would love to see more sense of connection between the public and the arts.”
The Arts for Mobility concert in aid of Kids First will take place at the Ho Chi Minh City Opera House on Saturday Oct. 25. With refreshments and a silent auction starting at 6pm, the performance will run from 7.30pm to 10pm. Tickets are VND500,000 (VND250,000 for students) and can be purchased through ticketbox.vn. For more information go to artsformobility.com