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A Young Violist's Take on Performing in Saigon's All-Vietnamese Orchestra

Notes leap and prance out of bamboo flute the way a cricket prances between stalks of grass.

The sound and sight of such insect acrobatics would have been familiar for Pham Vu Thien Bao growing up in rural Ho Nai, Dong Nai Province. Less common, however, was classical music. The accomplished viola player tells Saigoneer that his father was the only one in his village that regularly listened to the genre. He’d fallen in love with it after a random encounter during his travels and once he was able to afford it, he bought a violin that served as Bao’s introduction. After years practicing on his own or with his father and his friends, Bao moved to Saigon to study. In 2003, visiting teacher Maryvonne Le Dizes took notice of his talent and invited him to France.

Pham Vu Thien Bao is a member of the Ho Chi Minh City Ballet Symphony Orchestra and Opera. Photo via Saigon Classical.

Bao made the switch to viola by chance. Late to a rehearsal, he was forced to remain outside the practice hall’s shut doors and listen. One melody caught his ears and, though he didn’t know what instrument was playing it, he knew he wanted to learn it. The next day he started practicing viola. During his 13 years in France, he performed all over Europe including Spain, Italy and Austria.

We spoke with Bao this past summer between the final rehearsal and the performance of Diary of a Cricket performed by the Ho Chi Minh City Ballet Symphony Orchestra and Opera (HBSO), composed by Vu Viet Anh and conducted by Tran Nhat Minh. De Men Phieu Luu Ky, the classic children’s story written by To Hoai more than 40 years ago tells the adventures of a wanderlust cricket who sets out on an adventure and along the way transforms from a conceited bully into a compassionate and generous leader. The performance involves the symphony orchestra, rock musicians, a choir and of course a bamboo flute that Bao says conjures nostalgic feelings of his hometown back when it consisted of humble houses and expansive rice fields.

Bao laughs when asked if he is like the cricket considering his own sojourns. No, he says, he was never a bully whose actions led to the death of his neighbor, after all. But he does say the story captures all children's desires to venture into the world in search of action and intrigue. Also, unlike the novel’s titular character, Bao lacks unwavering confidence. He reveals that he still gets nervous before each performance, but that’s a good thing because it means he isn’t a robot but rather an artist reliant on emotions and a desire to please the audience. Being an artist, to him, means “trying to develop your sensitivities,” and consequently, “perhaps you will be easier to be hurt.” Such sensitivity even led him to abandon the instrument for a year and contemplate working as a coffee farmer.

A desire to help develop the classical music scene in Vietnam helped motivate Bao’s return to Saigon in 2015. In the decades since Bao first encountered classical music, it’s become more readily available to Vietnamese thanks to the internet. But just because it’s available on Spotify or YouTube, doesn’t mean someone will give it a listen. Bao admits people have a certain impression of what classical music is — something intimidating or pretentious. He, therefore, suggests people listen with an open mind and simply look to be relaxed, have their imaginations invigorated. There is a reason it’s existed for 300 years and continues to evolve, he says.

In Bao’s estimations, parents are crucial in introducing children to the genre as it might not make its way to their ears given all the alternatives. HBSO, therefore, routinely offers students free tickets to their performances and encourages performers to hold more intimate shows and talks at local coffee shops. The fact that Diary of a Cricket was written, produced and performed entirely by Vietnamese musicians is cause for optimism regarding the future of classical music in Vietnam.

Given classical music’s relative obscurity in current society, it’s fitting that the event was held in the Saigon Opera House. Despite its fascinating history and the wide range of events that are held inside, many locals don’t know much about it or think of it as a place to go for entertainment. Built in 1899, it reflected the popularity and prestige of the classical music that arrived with the French at the beginning of the colonial period. But the grandiosity of the building and cost of foreign performers resulted in massive debts and by the 1920s, it was rented out for small, amateur events and lost much of its prominence. The Japanese destroyed its facade during the occupation; Allied troops bombed it; in 1954 it was used to temporarily house migrants from the north. After a stint as Lower House of the National Assembly, it was refurbished in 1998 and much of its original grandeur returned. But people haven’t necessarily been filling it to capacity.

Watching Diary of a Cricket, it's surprising that the performance is not more crowded. The talented musicians delivered a rousing performance that was perhaps most notable for its inclusion of a variety of musical elements one wouldn’t normally associate with a symphony orchestra. The choir was joined by guitars and drums and the main characters were all included via solo performances by vocalists, one of which even delivered his lines in hip-hop style. But after speaking with Bao, it was the bamboo flute that stood out the most. Slowly hopping above and below the other instruments it harked back to the simpler time during which the book was written and Bao fell in love with classical music. Much has changed in the world since then, but the power of classical music has not.

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