By Nguyễn Bình
|ALL ABOUT THE BASS: Double bassist Vũ Cẩm Tú performs solo at the concert jointly held by Việt Nam National Symphony and Orchestra and UNFPA. Photo courtesy of UNFPA
Vũ Cẩm Tú and Phùng Hoài Thu were both stars playing solos at a concert co-held by Việt Nam National Symphony Orchestra (VNSO) and the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA) last month, aiming to raise public awareness and enhance the value of girls in society.
Viola player Thu and contrabassist Tú were among five female musicians invited to perform in the concert Girls Deserve to Shine last month in Hà Nội. The other musicians were pianist Nguyễn Thái Hà, cellist Lưu Ly Ly and harp player Nguyễn Thùy Dương.
Tú and Thu are from musical families, and the concert allowed them to play solos with the national orchestra for the first time.
|FOCUSED: Viola player Phùng Hoài Thu teaches at the Việt Nam National Academy of Music. Photo courtesy of the artist
Tú was one of the two youngest musicians performing at the concert.
"The concert is meaningful, and performing a solo with the national orchestra is my dream," Tú said. "It is a good opportunity to know how much I'm capable of and my position in the orchestra."
The 20-year-old musician is studying in her third year at the Việt Nam National Academy of Music (VNAM). She did not think much about the difficulty when invited to play at the concert.
Unluckily, she had an accident and broke her leg, so she could not practise for nearly two months. The double bass is very solid and of an amazing size. To play it, she needed to be in top physical condition.
The challenge didn't stop there. The piece she performed at the concert Concerto for Double Bass, Op.3 by Russian Serge Koussevitzky is tough. This is also the first time she played it. She chose the piece because she had never had a chance to play it before, even though she was fully aware of how difficult it would be.
"Many musicians play it, and I thought I would play it like other pieces before. I didn't think much about the difficulty of the first time playing the piece," Tú said.
"Actually, the piece is a bit overwhelming for me. Sometimes I felt very discouraged and wanted to say to the concert conductor that I could not perform it."
|TRAILBLAZER: Vũ Cẩm Tú (centre, third row) is the only female double bassist in the Việt Nam National Symphony and Orchestra. Photo courtesy of the artist
She made a huge effort to perform the piece at the concert and turned her dream into reality with support from colleagues at the VNSO and her teacher.
"Tú gained success when she played solo at the concert," said Tú's teacher Lưu Nhật Tân.
"This is one of the hardest pieces for double bass. In Việt Nam, perhaps no musician has ever played this solo. If Tú had asked me, I would have advised her not to play it. I thought she was too young to feel the piece fully."
However, her teacher now feels happy with his student's performance after being entrusted to teach her double bass from the beginning by the young musician's mother.
But, Tú did not learn double bass initially. Her parents and her paternal grandmother are musicians. Her late mother was a violist. She had first contact with music in the womb and grew up backstage wherever her parents performed.
She began to learn cello when she was 6 years old and later learned piano to train her ear. Later, aged 13, her mother decided to choose double bass for her because she thought it offered a better future.
Not long after that, her mother died after a prolonged illness. It left a huge void in the teen girl. Her mother's death disoriented her and reduced her ability to cope and study.
"At that time, I didn't understand the role of the double bass in the orchestra, although I had chances to perform. I felt bored because I want to play the violin or other instruments with a high pitch," she said.
"After a long time, I saw that I was lucky to learn double bass from a young age. The instrument is a part of a full orchestra and equal to others. I have made efforts in studying, and more opportunities will come."
She was invited to work with VNSO in 2020, becoming the only female contrabassist in the orchestra. Her teacher hopes that Tú will be the first graduate female contrabassist in Việt Nam.
The concert Girls Deserve To Shine brought one more chance for Tú to perform with violist Thu. The two soloists played together at VNSO many times, but performing at that concert was meaningful for them.
"The concert conveys a message that people should honour women and children and protect them from family violence," Thu said.
Like Tú, Thu also chose a piece she had never performed before. But the piece Andante e Rondo Ungarese for Viola and Orchestra by Carl Maria von Weber was not difficult for her.
"It is thanks to a discussion with the concert conductor choosing the piece, so I did not encounter difficulty during practice. I am almost satisfied with my performance," Thu said.
She gained experience performing tours with the Asian Youth Orchestra (AYO) in Việt Nam, Hong Kong, Japan, the Chinese mainland and Singapore in 2013 and 2014.
Thu said that it was lucky for her to apply to the AYO directly because, at that time, Việt Nam was one of the countries in which AYO conductor Richard Pontzious came for an audition round. Later, young Vietnamese musicians were required to send an audition CD to AYO in Hong Kong.
|PURPLE PATCH: Phùng Hoài Thu is one of the female musicians to perform at a concert jointly held by Việt Nam National Symphony and Orchestra and UNFPA last month in Hà Nội. Photo coutersy of UNFPA
She still remembers being nervous at the audition because the conductor was known as strict and demanding. There were Thu and two others, cellist Trần Hồng Nhung and clarinet player Trần Khánh Quang whom the AYO selected in 2013.
"I was very glad to be chosen to perform with the AYO in the first application," said Thu. "Joining the AYO impressed me and helped me understand a professional music career. It also encouraged me and made me realise I had too many things to learn."
Thu was 17 on her first tour with the AYO and was still studying violin.
Born to a musical family, her mother is a master of viola at VNSO, and her father studied oboe in Russia. At the age of five, her father took her to his friend, a violin teacher and she became acquainted with the violin.
She started learning violin at the age of eight at the VNAM according to the wishes of her parents because they thought the violin was suitable for their small daughter. After learning violin with her first teacher for seven years, Thu continued learning with violinist Bùi Công Duy.
However, the turning point in her studying came when one of her mother's colleagues said that her daughter, who was studying violin in Norway, wanted to set up a Vietnamese music ensemble. She suggested Thu should play viola with her mother's tutoring.
"My parent never thought for me to learn the viola because of my small body, as the viola is bigger than the violin," Thu said.
At that time, she had studied the violin for more than 10 years.
"I feel more confident with the viola, although my time with the viola is shorter than my time with the violin. I don't know why," Thu said.
Thu joined the ensemble and found that she had a breakthrough in power when she played the viola. She attended a music camp in Norway with the ensemble in 2012 and 2013. One year later, she had a scholarship from the Vietnamese government to study at the Rimsky-Korsakov St Petersburg State Conservatory for six years.
While studying in Russia, she competed and won first prize with a trio at the 18th International Maria Yudina Competition in 2017. She regretted that she did not have a chance to compete in a competition for viola when she was studying in Russia.
"Viola competition is rare. I missed a big chance in my career because my wrist was hurt," Thu said.
After receiving a specialist degree at St Petersburg State Conservatory, she returned to Việt Nam and currently teaches at VNAM's String Department.
Not only shining on the stage, talented musicians Tú and Thu also want to share their performing experiences and music knowledge with younger students. Both of them are coaches at the Việt Nam Youth Orchestra and see it as part of their mission to care for, trust and spread the joy of classical music to the next generation. VNS