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A Night of Revelations at the Saigon Opera House

A concert of Brahms' Symphony No. 4 held on a Sunday night last month at the Saigon Opera House presented a series of somewhat startling revelations.

Before the first note had sounded, a sense of occasion and anticipation was palpable as the well-heeled audience filed up the red carpet into the rococo interior of the building, an exemplar of the colonial Belle Epoque style designed by French architect Eugene Ferret and audaciously stationed in the heart of tropical then-Indochina in 1897.

That classical music has an enthusiastic, knowledgeable audience in Saigon was evident — the first revelation of the evening — and this conclusion can only prompt cries for more of the same in the city, where the genre is lamentably underserved.

The evening’s greatest revelation was that the Ho Chi Minh City Ballet Symphony Orchestra (HBSO) carried off the Brahms Fourth Symphony, a piece which challenges the world’s most illustrious symphony orchestras, with tremendous aplomb. But more on that later.  

I will confess to never having heard of Oscar Navarro, the composer of a clarinet concerto which opened the evening with veteran Dutch clarinettist Leon Bosch as soloist.

The piece opened in conventional form and swiftly took on an ethereal beauty, unsurprising perhaps given that Navarro, a 37-year-old Spanish composer, specializes in writing music for movies. One could almost visualize the opening or end credits of a Hollywood tearjerker rolling by over a desolate landscape as the music unfolded.

The muted strings of the HBSO produced a haunting accompaniment to Bosch’s exquisite, carefully modulated tone, and all was serene.

So much for serenity when the orchestra and soloist abandoned the mood to replace it with a rock-and-roll jive, in what might have been played by a big band orchestra on prom night in an American high school in the late 1950s.

We understood then that the piece was something of a playful pastiche, but that never robbed the lyrical passages of their maudlin beauty.

Then it was on to the seldom-performed Concert Piece Number 2 for two clarinets and orchestra by Felix Mendelssohn, in which Leon Bosch was joined by young Vietnamese clarinettist Nguyen Tuan Loc.

The performance featured stunning virtuosity from both wind players and its finale some ultra-high precision accuracy of duet playing that was the epitome of exuberance and joy, in utter keeping with the composer’s intentions that this piece be a work of sheer lighthearted pleasure.

Johannes Brahms’ Fourth Symphony is a different matter entirely. Profoundly serious, expansive, sonorous, serene and yet infused with the defiance of old age from the pen of a composer who was all too aware that this would be his last finished symphony, the work presents a massive challenge to any orchestra and the person who conducts it.

Conductor Lim Jun Oh produced complex textures from the orchestra throughout, from the glacial majesty of the opening bars of the first movement through to the fraught final bars of the fourth. Alright, there was the odd moment of dissonance — which was quickly adjusted — and Oh’s economical conducting style served the music in exemplary fashion; there were no unwarranted self-serving histrionics, and the choice of tempi was absolutely in line with the composer’s stated intentions in the written score.

In closing, it was rather a delight to note Oh’s change of costume from dinner jacket in the first half for his accompaniment of the clarinettists, moving for the Brahms to full tails and a frilly dress shirt which might have come from those sartorially challenged days of the 1970s.

Oh might have been deadly serious in his choice of shirt, after all Brahms is the most serious of composers and deserving of the utmost respect, or making a cool retro fashion statement. I’m going to go for the latter, in what was, after all, an evening of surprising revelations.

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