Nurturing musical talent through war and peace

November 25, 2016 - 09:00

The Viet Nam National Academy of Music has sustained its work for 60 years, with classes continuing in underground shelters amidst bombing raids

Imposing: The Grand Concert Hall, set to Japanese acoustic standards, opened this January. — VNS Photo
Viet Nam News

by Nguyễn Thúy Bình

As the first notes of the symphony he composed resounded at a concert recently, La Thăng became emotional.

His work had waited for more than 50 years before making its debut.

Thăng had composed the Đất Nước Anh Hùng (Heroic Country) symphony in 1964 to mark his graduation from the Composition Faculty of the Việt Nam National Academy of Music (VNAM).

The symphony was performed by the Hà Nội Philharmonic Orchestra with guest conductor Shalev Ad-El from Israel last Saturday.

The concert was among a series of activities held over a month to celebrate the 60th anniversary of academy (1956-2016). It also featured works by J.Strauss and Brahms. 

"I could not imagine how my symphony would be played by a full orchestra until I attended the rehearsal," said the 86-year old composer. 

"It was amazing. The conductor skillfully orchestrated my work. I didn’t have any idea about his orchestration. It was quite rewarding."

The original, hand-written score of the symphony is very old, some of its pages torn. It was rewritten by hand before being sent to conductor Ad-El for orchestrating. 

"I have received the score for this special piece around a year ago. It revealed itself as a strong, wonderfully written piece of music, but I had little knowledge of its special background," said the conductor. 

"I can’t express my honour and privilege to be the one premiering it with the Hanoi Philharmonic Orchestra. The orchestra played the piece with ease and passion".

La Thăng had composed the piece with the primary aim of uplifting the spirits of Vietnamese people in the war against the Americans. It was meant to be performed in 1965. Everything was ready when the US bombing raids on Hà Nội began. The concert was cancelled and the piece remained in its handwritten form, awaiting its chance to see the light of the day.

It was not just composer Thăng’s concert that was cancelled. The bombing raids by the US and the ensuing long period of resistance also interrupted teaching and learning at the academy, then called the Việt Nam School of Music. 

School from zero to hero

Founded in Hà Nội in November 6, 1956 two years after the French withdrew their troops from northern Việt Nam in accordance with Geneva Agreement in 1954, Việt Nam’s first music school started out with zero music books.

There were just seven musicians: Tạ Phước; Nguyễn Xuân Khoát; Lê Yên; Doãn Mẫn; Tô Vũ; Vũ Thuận and the lone female musician Thái Thị Liên. 

During their colonial rule of over 80 years, the French Government opened a law school, a medicine school and a fine arts college. There was no music school for the public. A private music school opened in1929 to cater to the wealthy class, but it folded just a year later because of financial problems.

When the Government of North Việt Nam came to power, a school teaching both western and traditional Vietnamese music was opened. Violinist Tạ Phước was appointed head of the music school. Composer Nguyễn Xuân Khoát, who studied at the French Conservatory of the Far East in Hà Nội, taught the cello; Thuận, the accordion; Thái Thị Liên taught piano; Lê Yên and Tô Vũ taught composition and Dõan Mẫn taught musical notation.

During the early days, music classes were scattered in buildings throughout Hà Nội, including 32 Nguyễn Thái Học Street and an outskirts village in the Láng area, west of Hà Nội.

In the early 1960s, the music school had three new four-storied buildings in the premises of a cemetery in Ô Chợ Dừa Ward, then an underdeveloped neighbourhood. This was the time what the school started offering graduation programmes.

Evacuated, dispersed

On August, 5 1964, the US forces began its air-raids in the north of Việt Nam after targeting coastal and central provinces first. A year later, among other units in Hà Nội, the music school was evacuated and dispersed into northern provinces like Hà Tây and Hà Bắc (Bắc Ninh and Bắc Giang today). 

The school, which had yet to celebrate its first tenth anniversary, had its faculty and hundreds of students as well as 60 pianos and other instruments carried on ox carts to the neighbouring provinces, 40-80km from Hà Nội.

It is worth noting that most of the teachers and students were born and raised in the city, and were beginning a new life in the countryside lacking most of the conveniences that they were used to.

Students and teachers lived with the farmers. There was no electricity and the classes were held in shelters dug deep in the ground, and they lacked food and school supplies. But the classes continued, and the pastoral scenes and life enriched the heart and souls of the music students.

One of them carried the memories to the most prestigious of music stages in the world: The International Chopin Piano Competition in Warsaw in 1980. The man was Đặng Thái Sơn.

"I got to know Chopin’s music during the moonlit nights after evacuating to the countryside, hearing my mother playing compositions from the scores she’d brought back from the Chopin competition when she was a guest observer," he recalled.

Son made headlines, becoming the first Asian to win the First Prize at the 10th International Fryderyk Chopin Piano Competition in 1980. He studied first with his mother Madam Thái Thị Liên at the music school in Việt Nam. He practised the piano everyday in the underground shelter just 2km or so away from the nearest bombed area. 

Doyen of doyens

His mother, Madam Liên, is the only female musician among the music school’s founders who is still alive. While most of her co-founders were all self-taught musicians, she was Việt Nam’s first woman to graduate with an overseas music degree, from the Prague Conservatory in Czechoslovakia in 1951.

Madam Liên stills remembers her first mission at the opening of the music school. She had to find people who could play the piano. The first piano teachers were amateur pianists in Hà Nội who were trained for a year by Madam Liên. 

The first piano course at the school was open to everyone who wanted to learn the instrument. Later the course started accepting only qualified students. There was a shortage of music books and pianos, and Madam Liên loaned students her scores to be hand-copied. 

She celebrated her 98th birthday this August, but for Vietnamese, who count a year in the womb, she’s 99. To celebrate the academy’s 60th anniversary, she will perform on stage this Saturday at its Grand Hall. She will play two Mazurkas by Chopin.

"I choose No 5 and No 45 of Mazurkas to play at the ceremony because of their contrasting styles. The two pieces are among more than 50 pieces composed by Chopin based on traditional Polish dance.

No 5 is a little bit for fun and it is a fast piece to play, while No 45 is slow and sentimental. I learnt to play Chopin’s works when I was young. His works were always in my performing repertoire," Madam Liên said.

Despite her age, she has been rehearsing the pieces for a couple of months. Her performance will be particularly meaningful and special as the sole remaining founder-member of the academy and the oldest performing pianist in front of the public in Việt Nam.

According to the Oriental zodiac, 60 years completes a human life cycle. For the music school, another life cycle starts after this anniversary.

Many awards

Over the last 60 years, the academy’s achievements in training, performing and research have earned it many national awards and medals including Hồ Chí Minh Order 2014, Order of Independence, first class, in 2001 and 2006, and Order of Independence, second class, in 1996.

Musicians who have graduated from the academy have made their presence felt on the Vietnamese modern music scene.

Composers like Tạ Phước, La Thăng, Nguyễn Văn Thương, Vĩnh Cát, Đặng Hữu Phúc, Vũ Nhật Tân and Kim Ngọc, to name a few, have showcased their talents in symphony and chamber music.

Established song-writers from the academy include Hồng Đăng; Hoàng Hiệp; Phó Đức Phương; Nguyễn Cường; Lê Minh Sơn and Giáng Son.

There are also a few famous conductors who’ve taught and studied at the academy, like Trọng Bằng, Đỗ Hồng Quân, Lê Phi Phi and Trần Mạnh Hùng.

Đặng Thái Sơn is the most outstanding musician from the academy recognised internationally. Musicians including pianist Tôn Nữ Nguyệt Minh, who currently lives in Germany, tenor Trung Kiên and bass Trần Hiếu are others who have achieved international acclaim.

Young generation

The academy has continued to bring out a young and competent generation of musicians.

Violinist Bùi Công Duy; pianist brothers Lưu Hồng Quang and Lưu Đức Anh; traditional musician Võ Vân Ánh; and top singers including Thanh Lam; Mỹ Linh and Tùng Dương have all trained at the academy.

Numerous academy graduates have worked for art troupes, music schools and orchestras in the country. In 1960, the country had just one orchestra. Now, it has three: the Việt Nam National Symphony and Orchestra; Việt Nam Opera and Ballet; and the Hà Nội Philharmonic Orchestra.

The academy’s students continue to win top prizes at regional and international contests. Besides, the academy itself organises competitions drawing contestants from other countries, like the Hà Nội International Piano Contest.

The ceremony marking the academy’s 60th anniversary will include performances of several generations of musicians, from Madam Liên to young violinist Trần Lê Quang Tiến who just won first prize in the junior group of the 6th International Violin Competition held in Astana, Kazakhstan last month. 

Tiến, in his fifth year of studies at the academy, said: “I would like to become both a performing artist and teacher, and if I teach, I will teach at the academy.” — VNS

Signal honour: Pianist Đặng Thái Sơn, now settled in Montreal, Canada, performs in January to celebrate the prestigious Hồ Chí Minh Order presented to the Academy by the President. — VNS Photo
Musical stage: The Grand Concert Hall and the Small Hall of the Viet Nam National Academy of Music hosts festivals throughout the year. VNS Photo
Global stage: International artists perform in the Academy’s Grand Hall, a 800-seat venue financed by the government. — VNS Photo
Strumming along: Madam Liên (standing) with one of her first generation students. File Photo
Country music: The conducting class held after the academy was evacuated and dispersed to villages. File Photo