Less gentility, please
Gentility is the enemy of classical music. Yet all too often the genteel is felt to be what this music requires, and indeed is all about. It stands, according to this view, for the supposed bourgeois virtues of elegance, good taste and reticence. Classical music is sweet and restrained, the theory goes, in contrast to the rowdiness and bad manners of pop.
Nothing, in my view, could be further from the truth. In the days before electricity, music had to be heard live or not at all. And all emotions were there. Liszt was a demon on the piano, Wagner astounded listeners with his sonorous brutality, Puccini was almost like a drug with his sweet-sour sound, and the young Richard Strauss astonished all and sundry with his strident modernism.
Galas are special performances where local celebrities perform well-loved items from the repertoire. Last Sunday’s Gala New Year Concert at the Saigon Opera House offered an excellently chosen list of items, but we had to wait some time for any truly memorable performances.
What the HBSO players often need is less reserve, less tentativeness, and above all less gentility. They need to throw all caution to the winds and assault our senses with abrasiveness, loudness and a touch of the savage. Take the chorus of the Hebrew slaves from Verdi’s Nabucco. This is a chorus so celebrated that it only just missed being chosen for Italy’s national anthem (slaves were an inappropriate synonym for Italians, it was probably felt) and was sung by the vast crowd at Verdi’s funeral. But it represents a passionate longing for a homeland, and passion was almost wholly lacking from its performance on Sunday. Instead, I felt it was being offered as a sweet little tune that the audience might enjoy hearing once again.
The HBSO Chorus is in fact very good, but what it lacks is a strong bass element. The Welsh National Opera often revives Nabucco, perhaps because of its strong chorus, and especially its super-strong bass singers, deriving from the choirs of former Welsh mine workers. Perhaps a few Welsh basses could be imported to beef up the HBSO contingent, though surely some sturdy candidates could be recruited locally.
Quite a few of the early items in this Gala were characterized by this reserve and gentility, and it wasn’t until soprano Pham Khanh Ngoc came on stage that we were treated to something really splendid with her rendition of a Johann Strauss number. The audience responded very enthusiastically, which showed they were basically in need of what I’ve indicated, i.e. less gentility and more bravura dynamism. This is what the Gala should have been like from the start.
Shortly afterwards the same high level was attained again by soprano Nguyen Thu Huong and tenor Phan Huu Trung Kiet in the drinking song from Verdi’s La Traviata. Glasses of spirits were held high and sipped by the soloists. They were probably cold tea, but I couldn’t help feeling that a shot or two of the real thing should have been administered to all the performers, and the conductor Le Phi Phi, prior to the performance. Gentility might then have been banished altogether in favor of something more than a touch more dynamic.
O Sole Mio was presented as an encore, and to great effect, with tenor Pham Trang surpassing himself. We could have done with a lot more like this. And why not some Vietnamese songs to round things off? These would have been hugely popular, and sent the audience away with broad smiles all round.