by Vu Lan Dung
|Merging voices: Pham Hong Hai introduces the Viet NamChildren's Choir and the visiting American KSBKeystone Boys' Choir as part of the VietNam-US Children's Choir programme at the Opera House in 2006.Photos courtesy of Pham HongHai
To some people, following a career path they have little knowledge of can sometimes lead to failure, but this was not the case for conductor Pham Hong Hai, who works as deputy director of the Viet Nam Opera and Ballet Theatre.
He started to learn the piano and accordion at the Military College of Arts and Culture at age 13 following a suggestion by his father's friend. Graduating from the college in 1976, he studied symphony conducting at the Viet Nam National Academy of Music (VNAM) before receiving a scholarship to learn composition in France. At the Metz National Academy of Music, Hai also joined a choir in an attempt to integrate with his French peers and learn more of their language. One day, a fellow student was conducting the choir instead of his professor, and at that point Hai realised that choir conducting was the profession for him.
He enrolled in a class, and on his return to Viet Nam, conducted concerts held by the Viet Nam National Symphony Orchestra. Two programmes that stood out under his baton were a performance of Mozart's Cosi fan tutte (The School of Lovers) and a rendition of Kham Pha Am Nhac (Discovering Music), that introduced symphony to children across the country. He also shared the same stage with partners from other countries, including American Steven Fisher and Linda Horowitz of Germany.
Dang Chau Anh, a professor from VNAM and Sol Art's choir director, said: "Hai is very enthusiastic and passionate about music. Children love him and refer to him as Bac Hai (Uncle Hai). He works with international organisations to hold festivals, including the first Viet Nam International Choir Festival and Competition, and this creates a network for conductors to share experience and help young colleagues."
Few people know that many performances by Vietnamese musicians abroad have been organised by the 54-year-old. Since 1994, he has been finding opportunities as well as financial support for local artists to perform in other countries and territories such as the US, South Korea, Japan, Hong Kong, Indonesia and Singapore.
When Dong Van Minh, a member of family band Tre Viet (Vietnamese Bamboo), expressed his wish to perform abroad, Hai contacted a bamboo association in Hong Kong and told them about Minh's aspirations. Three years later, a representative from the association was on a visit to Viet Nam, and agreed to meet the band.
"|t's like fishing. You cast the line out ten times, but you only catch one fish. I have emailed many people, but only a few have replied," Hai said. "I love this work, so I don't mind spending my time and efforts on it."
|Fast hands: PhamHong Hai at the Ha Noi Opera House.
On a visit to France, Hai attended a concert performed by a children's orchestra, and it gave him the idea of establishing a similar group at home. However, he recognised it would be difficult to turn this dream into a reality, because it takes most children five to seven years to become proficient with an instrument.
Undeterred, in 2004 he decided to form a children's choir after being astounded by the wonderful voices of a group of kids from Hong Kong. With approval from the theatre's director, Hai advertised the choir in front of the Opera House. After one month, 30 young singers had signed up for the group, and the Viet Nam Children's Choir was formed. Membership jumped to 100 the following year and quickly reached 300.
"We have no difficulties teaching the kids because they only practise once a week. Children often concentrate on what they like. If they are not enjoying the songs, they will stop trying and start talking to each other," Hai said.
He explained that it is difficult to translate Vietnamese folk songs, especially those expressing a person's feelings like Ngoi Tua Man Thuyen (Leaning On The Boat Side) or with varied rhythms such as Ru Con Nam Bo (South Viet Nam Lullaby). He has to spend a few days rewriting songs in two or three parts to make them easier and more enjoyable for the children.
In 2006, he was invited to be a judge at the World Choir Festival and Competition in China by Interkultur, an organisation founded by Gunter Titsch in 1999 to bridge people of all nations, cultures and ideologies together through music.
Watching the troupes hoisting their flags and singing their national anthems, he had a strong desire to see Vietnamese singers standing up there beside them.
He registered the Viet Nam Children's Choir for the World Choir Festival and Competition in Austria in 2008. Surprisingly, they won a bronze medal in the folklore category on their debut at the event, but the choir broke up soon after, due to administrative difficulties.
In order to keep his dream alive, the Ha Noi-based conductor started his own, independent choir at the beginning of 2010. The Ha Noi New Choir, with the participation of singers aged five to 22, received a bronze medal in the traditional choir category at the International Choir Contest in China in July, just a few months after they had formed.
Bui Minh Anh, who has been singing under the instruction of Hai while studying at Giang Vo Secondary School, shared: "He is good-hearted and loves the kids so much. At first, I couldn't sing very well but he has spent a lot of time helping me to work on my voice and vocals."
Hai also helped organise the first Viet Nam International Choir Festival and Competition last year. Recalling the fiesta atmosphere, he happily said: "30 troupes performed for free and completely changed people's views of choir music, many of whom presumed it was the same as symphony. Choir is a musical ensemble of people who take on two parts or more. The audience was surprised that the music was something they could relate to."
The event helped to kick-start the development of choir music in Viet Nam. A group was set up in host province Quang Nam to take part, and the National University of Art Education eventually went on to win the competition, providing a boost to students from other colleges. After the event, a professor from the HCM City Academy of Music said she would be bringing two choirs to the next festival.
Everyday the conductor goes to the theatre, arranges programmes for domestic artists, and thinks of ways to popularise choral music in the country. "I will try my best to bring top international acts to Viet Nam and showcase Vietnamese troupes to the world," he said, with a smile. — VNS