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Sunday,  Oct 21,2018,12:06 (GMT+7)

Stephane Tran Ngoc returns to Saigon

Bradley Winterton
Monday,  May 7,2018,18:27 (GMT+7)
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Stephane Tran Ngoc returns to Saigon

Bradley Winterton

Last time I reviewed the Paris-born violinist Stephane Tran Ngoc in Saigon I went over the top. 

“I don’t think I have ever been so excited and impressed,” I wrote in The Saigon Times on July 21, 2017. It was “a concert of a lifetime,” with the soloist having “all the virtues, plus more besides”. 

He will appear again on Wednesday May 9 at the Saigon opera House, playing Shostakovich’s First Violin Concerto, with the HBSO music director Tran Vuong Thach conducting.

Last time he succeeded in making a modernistic piece, Peteris Vask’s Concerto for violin and string orchestra, Distant Light, sound like Mozart. But it was his encores that really devastated me.

First he played an item from a Bach partita for solo violin that was simultaneously soulful and complex. Then came a celebrated Paganini caprice, written to show the technological extremes a violin was capable of, and, of course, Paganini’s own prodigious virtuosity as a performer. But Stephane Tran Ngoc was his equal, I considered. 

On Wednesday he will play something very different, Shostakovich’s First Violin Concerto (he wrote two, but the second is insignificant). 

Shostakovich worked on this concerto between 1947 and 1948, but it wasn’t performed until 1955. The reason was censorship. But how can a piece of music consisting entirely of notes, and without text of any kind, be censored? 

The reason was a decree in the former USSR by which artistic works were ordered to be socially aware and patriotic. Works that were difficult to appreciate, or technically demanding, were labeled “formalist”, in other words putting form or artistic considerations ahead of political meaning. Shostakovich fell foul of this decree, and his Violin Concerto No.1 wasn’t performed until two years after the death of Stalin in 1953. 

Shostakovich is a controversial figure in the history of Russian music. During his lifetime he was considered by critics outside the USSR to be a loyal servant of the state. But then a change took place, and before long he was being described as someone who hid his opposition to Stalin deep within his music. 

It’s been suggested that Shostakovich wrote two kinds of music, a simple kind to please the censors, and a complex kind to fulfill his own artistic ambitions. His Violin Concerto No.1 undoubtedly belongs to the second category. 

The work consists of four movements, more characteristic of a symphony because a concerto usually has three movements. This four-movement form may indicate the importance Shostakovich gave to the work. 

The first movement is a laid-back Nocturne, or piece of night music. Next comes a wild and frantic Scherzo, to be played very fast. Next follows a Passacaglia, a form that’s something between a street-song and a court dance, but always very serious in mood. This is universally seen by commentators as the emotional heart of this concerto. It’s followed by a jokey last movement, a Burlesque. 

All in all, Shostakovich’s Violin Concerto No.1 is a major contribution to the world violin repertoire, and to hear Stephane Tran Ngoc play it will be a hugely significant experience. 

Many famous violinists play violins from the 18th century, the golden age of violin making. These are usually bought my international banks as investments, then loaned out to prominent instrumentalists. Stephane Tran Ngoc plays a violin made by the famous Venetian violin-maker Francesco Gobetti (1675 to 1723), which dates from 1709. 

In the first half of the concert the orchestra will play Elgar’s good-natured and undemanding Serenade for Strings, written in 1896. 

No one remotely interested in classical music should miss this return appearance in Saigon of Stephane Tran Ngoc. Encores are all-but assured, and should be a feast in themselves.

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