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Conductor strings together VN, classical style

Update: October, 20/2014 - 19:14
Cultural fusion: PQ Phan's music evokes the traditional melodies of Viet Nam, although his perfomances take place in the US and feature American actors. — VNS File Photo

Prolific Vietnamese-American composer PQ Phan creates modern classical music that evokes the sounds of Viet Nam. Luu Vi Lan reports.

PQ Phan, a renowned Vietnamese-American composer of contemporary classical music, has successfully carved out a niche for composing contemporary classical music to re-create his home country's traditional music.

His full name is Phan Quang Phuc and he is now 51 years old. He earned his doctoral degree in musical arts composition from the University of Michigan and has spent years re-creating traditional music such as the cheo, tuong and cai luong.

Phan is currently an associate professor of composition at Indiana University's Jacobs School of Music, one of the leading music institutions in the United States. He has written an intriguing concerto, entitled Concerto for Percussion and Mixed Ensemble, during his university years, and this was inspired by Central Binh Dinh Province's hallmark battle drum rhythm style, where one musician simultaneously plays 32 different drums.

PQ Phan's most significant work is adapted from a classic cheo play.

Phan assembled 40 assorted percussion instruments made of various materials ranging from wood and metal to leather and wrote a critically-acclaimed piece for them.

After graduating in 1995, he created what he considers to be his most satisfying work, a 22-minute piece for a quartet of strings and Vietnamese traditional instruments entitled Nhung hoi uc ve mot linh hon da mat (Memoirs of a Lost Soul), a musical recollection of his homeland during the war years.

The work has gone on to become a success and has been performed around the globe more than 500 times.

His most significant work, a 135-minute opera entitled Cau chuyen ba Thi Kinh (The Tale of Lady Thi Kinh), was adapted from a classic cheo or northern traditional music play. The play was performed onstage last spring and featured an orchestra, a choir and 15 character roles.

It was the first time that two choruses were sung in Vietnamese in an opera in the US, though all of the librettos were in English.

The play, staged at Indiana University's 1,460-seat, state-of-the-art opera theatre, received rave reviews. The university invested more than US$500,000 and numerous talented staff in the play.

George Walker wrote for the Indiana Public Media, "Phan's The Tale of the Lady Thi Kinh at the IU Opera Theater is a creative, bold and largely successful grand opera."

He also noted that, "The Vietnamese audience for these folk tale dramas did indeed want to be reminded of the truths of ancient stories. They wanted to be enlightened, to feel, to cry, but they also wanted to laugh.

"The Tale of Lady Thi Kinh's creator P.Q. Phan admits that comedy in the midst of a western style grand opera is a tricky thing, but he's tried with some success to be faithful to his drama's traditions."

In terms of musical notes, Phan invented a new technique for performing Vietnamese traditional tunes in a Western setting by quickly alternating between major and minor three-note intervals.

Lifelong dedication

In 1982, Phan left Viet Nam for California after coming close to completing his university course in architecture. A year later, the young man who had taught himself to play the piano in Viet Nam was accepted in the University of Southern California's music faculty.

While up to 70 per cent of the graduates switch to other careers and very few go on to take masteral and doctoral degrees in music composition, Phan remains steadfast on his chosen road. With many university students able to write only two concertos or one symphony a year to qualify for their bachelor's degrees, he composed at least 10, including two symphonies, in each of those years.

Composer Vu Nhat Tan, a member of the Viet Nam National Composer's Association and lecturer of the Department for Electronic Music at the Vietnam National Academy of Music in Ha Noi:

PQ Phan is famous for composing contemporary classical music and recently he writes for chorus. When preparing for a perfomance, he takes care with everything including costumes and the set.

Phan has lived for more than 20 years in the US but his music is always Vietnamese although his perfomances are set up in the US with American actors. His music has the traditional melodies and aims to spread the music to Vietnamese listeners.

Recently he joined the Vietnam National Academy of Music in the field of contemporary classical music. He always expresses his enthusiasm and confidence and has a professional working style.

PQ Phan really wants to help young composers in Viet Nam raise contemporary classical music to a higher level. — VNS

Phan had composed so many works by the time he graduated that when he was interviewed for the University of Michigan's masteral programme, the interviewer jokingly asked him how many symphonies he had written that morning.

To earn a doctoral degree, apart from compositions and research projects, students had to complete 45 credits. Phan completed double that number, including those on subjects few were interested in.

Phan's music has been performed in countries around the world, including Canada, England and South Korea.

Various renowned bands and orchestras have played his works, including the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra, Radio France, the Cincinnati Orchestra and the St. Louis Orchestra-Chamber Group, as well as the Cleveland Chamber Symphony, the Pittsburgh New Music Ensemble, and the Society for New Music.

Phan was also a guest composer at several music festivals, including the Asian Music Week 2000 and the 1999 Asian New Music Festival in Tokyo.

He has also received several awards, including the 1998 Rome Prize, the Rockefeller Foundation Grant, the Residency Award with the American Composers Orchestra, and the ASCAP Standard Awards. — VNS

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