The Vietnam Connection Music Festival is in its second year, with three concerts in Hanoi and two in HCMC. Many stars and other celebrities are taking part, and the entire event is in the process of becoming one of Vietnam’s classical music high points.

The HCMC leg opened on Sunday with an all-Vivaldi concert in the Music Conservatory. The ever-popular Four Seasons, in effect four violin concertos, opened the proceedings, with celebrity guest from China (and more recently the U.S.) Zhan Shu taking the lead. Three more concertos followed, two for two violins and one for three, with the result that Zhan Shu played in all seven concertos during the evening, a truly remarkable feat.

By and large the performances had the qualities of the original music, which is to say that the fourth Four Seasons concerto, Winter, was the most charismatic, and the three concertos after the intermission has the distinct advantage of not being the over-familiar items we’d just heard.

Perhaps inevitably the audience was riveted by the imposing presence on stage of Bui Cong Duy, possibly Vietnam’s most celebrated classical musician, as one of the two violin soloists in the A Minor concerto. They’d no doubt like to have heard more from him, but for that they had to wait for the all-Bach event in the Opera House two days later.

The Vivaldi concert had been only approximately half-full, but the Bach event was sold out. When I asked some patrons why they were there they came up with a variety of answers ranging from “Extraordinary program!” to “What celebrities!” But given that the Vietnamese have the reputation of not being over-enthusiastic for the Baroque, the full house at the Opera, on a Tuesday night to boot, was by any standards remarkable indeed.

Those patrons who thought the program extraordinary were, of course, right. We heard two Brandenburg concertos, numbers 3 and 4, plus the Concerto for 2 Violins in D Minor and two concertos for two keyboards, one in C Minor and the second in C Major. Zhan Shu was again on stage, though this time in a largely self-effacing role, and Bui Cong Duy played the solo violin in the Brandenburg Concerto Number 4.

In the event this proved to be the highlight of what was by any yardstick a memorable evening. Two flautists, Nguyen Dieu Quynh and Le Thu Huong, thrilled the ear as soloists in no uncertain manner, while Bui Cong Duy displayed his genius as expected, most spectacularly in the demanding last movement.

The Brandenburg concertos may be well-known, but the Concerto for Two Violins BWV1043 is scarcely less famous. Two lady violinists, Dao Mai Anh and Le Hoang Lan, both prominent in the Vietnam National Symphony Orchestra in Hanoi, played the solo parts with panache.

The biggest cliché about Bach is probably that his music, rather than being abstruse, is often dance-like, and, so journalists are fond of writing, he can be imagined as dancing to it round his kitchen with some of his innumerable children. In reality, the music is so varied that every mood can be found there, and often movements are more inward than the above fantasy suggests. The slow movement of BWV 1043 is a case in point, and it was played on Tuesday night with an appropriate delicacy made all the more effective by only some ten musicians being used.

The two concertos for two pianos that followed after the interval were originally written for harpsichords, but playing them on pianos does little harm, especially when talented pianists are available. This certainly proved to be the case on Tuesday when Nguyen Trinh Huong and Tran Thai Linh sparkled in the first concerto we heard, BWV1060, while Dao Trong Tuyen and Nguyen Huy Phuong equaled them in the second item, BWV 1061, in which large swathes are for the keyboardists alone.

All in all, this Bach concert was a great event in HCMC’s musical life, and those lucky enough to have tickets must have felt it was an honor to have been there.

It should be noted, incidentally, that Bui Cong Duy, who is based in Hanoi, will appear in HCMC again at the end of the month in Bach’s Concerto for Oboe and Violin, or for in this case two violins, being played alongside Beethoven’s Triple Concerto, with the HBSO Symphony Orchestra under Tran Vuong Thach. The performance is on August 29, again at the Opera House. This will be after Bui Cong Duy has returned to Hanoi to play in two more concerts in the Vietnam Connection festival.

Bradley Winterton

Friday,  Aug 12,2016,00:27 (GMT+7)