by To Hang
|Labour of love: Ton That Triem backs the Hope choir at a rehearsal of Christmas songs. Triem was introduced to blind students about 10 years ago by a friend. Triem has since built a close knit relationship with its members. — VNS Photo Doan Tung
While modern pop music, displayed in Western-style vocal shows (Viet Nam Idol, The Voice), and the catchy Korean "Gangnam Style" dance, dominate domestic music life in Viet Nam, one local pianist insists on the immortal values of the world's traditional melodies.
For more than a decade Ton That Triem and his wife, soprano Nguyen Xuan Thanh, have taught students of Nguyen Dinh Chieu School for blind children to sing folk songs from different countries.
The children, who have a special aptitude for singing, sing in the choir, named Hy Vong (Hope). Those who are better at playing a musical instrument form an ensemble.
They all practise under Triem and have their voices trained by Thanh. The choir has sung songs in Vietnamese, English, French, German, Italian, Russian, Spanish, Malaysian and African.
The ensemble play not only at their school and associations for handicapped people, but occasionally help celebrate events at many five-star hotels, embassies and international organisations in the capital city.
While the couple's work draws little attention from Viet Nam's Western music fanatics, it receives great applause from many in the foreign community.
"I now have had the opportunities to hear your choir on two occasions, and each time it moves me deeply to hear the beauty that your students create," former US ambassador to Viet Nam, Micheal W. Marine, wrote to the group in 2007.
Former Australian ambassador Allaster Cox praised the choir's performance in a letter to Triem in 2011. It said: "I was impressed and inspired by the choir's talent and confidence. We understand that this success owes much to your professional guidance and kind support. We respect and appreciate your efforts to help visually impaired children in Ha Noi."
The musical couple have also been praised by diplomats from many other countries, including Britain and South Africa.
At present, the choir is busy rehearsing Christmas carols to perform at Ha Noi's Fortuna Hotel.
A hotel spokeswoman said, "Their performances make our plan to raise charity funds during the Christmas season more meaningful."
Asked why the ensemble embraced traditional melodies, Triem said Christmas songs and lullabies were among the most beautiful musical pieces and touched every heart.
Vu Van The, 24, a member of the choir, said that before teaching a song, ‘Uncle Triem explains to us the meaning of every word, including ancient ones, in the festive music".
"He also gives us interesting background knowledge to the country where the music originated. That has helped enrich our understanding of the world."
|Talented lineup: Hope Choir pose with fans after their performance at L'Espace in November. Performing helps build confidence. — VNS Photo To Hang
Most members of the Hope Choir and orchestra totally rely on pianist Triem.
"He was Viet Nam's renowned pianist during the 1980s-90s, so he knows how to hold a concert. His large social connections make everything much easier," said The.
Meanwhile Jos Nguyen Van Hung, 27, who has sung baritone in the choir for 11 years, says Triem is "all in one".
This refers to the pianist's selection of songs, explanations of their meaning, piano talents – and his preparation of drinks and snacks for members after practice. Triem also arranges fund raising, leaflet design, and even acts as a xe om (motorbike taxi driver) for students.
The choir believe their tutors are "magic", capable of turning ordinary voices into gold.
One choir member recalled that her friends could not believe they sang so well and even asked if the songs had been pre-recorded.
Calling himself an old fashioned man and unfamiliar with modern publicity machines, Triem believes quality speaks the most.
When newspapers report on performances, Triem cuts them out to show future possible sponsors.
Triem was introduced to blind students about 10 years ago by a friend working for the US non-government organisation Samaritan's Purse. Triem has since built a close knit relationship with its members.
"Uncle Triem and Aunt Thanh never receive allowances for teaching and performing with us, said The. Sometimes they even give us money for taking motorbike taxis or to add to donations if they are not large enough for all to share."
He said Triem was, for them, an example of responsibility and diligence.
A speaker of French, Russian and English, Triem also learns German, Spanish and Italian to understand more about the songs the group sings.
"I see talent in many of them. They have incredible memories and a great passion for the music," he said.
And he believes music brings hope and joy to the disadvantaged. "Through performances, they understand they have talent and are useful members of society," he said.
Triem graduated from the Viet Nam Academy of Music in 1960 and then became a pianist with the Viet Nam National Theatre of Opera and Ballet in Ha Noi.
Triem's father was a leading Vietnamese eye doctor and his mother was a lecturer at the music academy. Triem and his two sisters, Ton Nu Y Lan and Ton Nu Nguyet Minh, gained a worldwide reputation.
Triem was granted an honorary diploma at the Tchaikovski International Music Competition in Russia in 1990. His wife was winner of several international singing contests in Russia.
The artist couple feel they have had a lucky life, so they feel it is their mission to help those less fortunate.
"Years ago, I dramatically overcame heart failure, so I think God has helped me," Triem said. "What I do for the children is far less than what I have received". — VNS