|Headed for the top: Honna Tetsuji at a concert's rehearsal. The conductor nurtures a strong belief that the VNSO will someday be among the top 10 most charming orchestras in the world.
by Thuy Hang
After living in Viet Nam for more than 10 years, Japanese conductor Honna Tetsuji still finds something new every day in the country that surprises him and adds to his sense of wonder about Viet Nam.
"It's amazing that I find a surprise every single day living here. You can say that I have 365 surprises for 365 days of the year. Some may be nice and others somewhat annoying but I accept them as being part of the life here," said Tetsuji, who is currently the Music Director and Principal Conductor of the Viet Nam National Symphony Orchestra (VNSO).
Anyway, the key reason why he chose to continue staying in the country for the past 14 years, the longest he spent in any country, are its friendly and kind-hearted people.
For Tetsuji, his meeting with Vietnamese cellist Ngo Hoang Quan in Ha Noi in October 2000 was a matter of fate. At that time, the Japanese conductor was on a concert tour to eight Asian cities.
"That was the first time I had visited Viet Nam and Quan was the one who asked if I wanted to come back. When I said ‘yes', he did a lot to bring me back by recommended me to the VNSO," the conductor recalled.
Four months later, in February 2001, Tetsuji took a flight back to Ha Noi, and began working for the VNSO as a guest conductor.
In the same year, he received an invitation from the orchestra to manage an "upgrading" project, aimed at improving the artistic quality of the VNSO.
"Like any other conductor who is trusted and given such an important project, I was very happy because it meant I could do something for the orchestra."
While designing repertoires for different concerts of the VNSO, alongside musical works by great composers such as Beethoven, Tchaikovsky and Mozart, he was thinking about Gustav Mahler, an Austrian late-Romantic composer, who acted as a bridge between the 19th century Austria-German tradition and the modernism of the early 20th century. The conductor decided to add Mahler's works to the concerts' repertoires.
"After we presented Mahler's Symphony No 1 and No 4, both, the VNSO and the audience, showed interest in this composer. I later had a meeting with the orchestra's artistic committee and suggested to perform all Mahler's symphony cycles."
Having received the approval of the artistic committee, Tetsuji and the orchestra started to stage Mahler's symphonies from 2007. They had an ambition to introduce all 10 symphonies in five years.
"We challenged ourselves with our plan to perform two symphonies every year. It really needs time for such preparation.
Needless to say, it is the first step that counts.
"We received a lot of feedback from the audience who said we are still ‘young' to play Mahler's. I just said: ‘Please support us, listen to us, and we will grow up,'" Tetsuji said, recalling the tough time.
Month by month, year by year, concert after concert, the conductor's efforts were rewarded as he witnessed the increasing number of audiences.
"It is really a good sign and showed we were receiving support of the audience and more and more people are interested in classical music. Instead of going to the concerts by invitation, now more and more audiences purchase their own tickets."
The year 2010 was a memorable one for Tetsuji as he conducted Mahler's Symphony No 8 at the National Convention Centre on the occasion of Ha Noi's millennium celebration.
"Symphony No 8 was called ‘Symphony of a Thousand' because it requires huge instrumental and vocal forces. So we planned to perform it in 2010 to celebrate the city's millennium," Tetsuji explained.
As many as 750 people from nearly 30 choirs from Japan, Malaysia and many multi-nationality choirs in Viet Nam joined in the grand performance.
"Although performing that symphony involved very hard work but we did so successfully. It was not only the biggest ever, but was also the most memorable concert that I've ever conducted."
Another memorable concert was when Tetsuji, together with artists of the Viet Nam National Opera and Ballet, staged the opera Co Sao (Miss Sao) by Vietnamese composer Do Nhuan in the northern province of Son La in 2014.
|Good friends: Honna Tetsuji poses for a picture with VNSO Director Nguyen Tri Dung. — Photos courtesy of Honna Tetsuji
The opera illustrates the spirit of national resistance against the French colonialism. It was written by Nhuan, who was jailed in Son La Prison during 1941-42.
Tetsuji said he felt the area was a sacred place as many Vietnamese patriots died here when they were jailed and tortured by the jailers.
"Before the rehearsal, all of us visited the historical prison, where composer Do Hong Quan, son of the opera's composer, showed me the cell where his father was jailed. He also told me about the difficulties that his father and his comrades were willing to cope with, aiming to win freedom for the country," Tetsuji said.
The conductor said he had never experienced such a strong and emotional moment as he did when he was told about those brave people.
"It was also very lovely to see many local ethnic Thai people were among the audience during that performance," he added.
Besides acting as the artistic director, Tetsuji also advises the orchestra's marketing team on how to attract more audience.
He nurtures a strong belief that the VNSO will someday be among the top 10 most charming orchestras in the world "because Vietnamese musicians have a sixth sense that helps them to perceive and play the music much better".
Although Tetsuji has no idea how long he will continue to stay in Viet Nam but he said as long as the VNSO would want him to stay, he will remain by their side.
"Maybe I will stay here until my last heart beat. Who knows?" Tetsuji said. "Absolutely, Viet Nam is now my second home and I'm lucky to meet and work with wonderful people including cellist Ngo Hoang Quan and VNSO's current director, Nguyen Tri Dung, who I consider my good friend." — VNS