KVT – Superbly Strung out

KVT – Superbly Strung out

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KVT gets more loquacious about Song Hong

In August I spent a couple of glorious weeks listening to a major international chamber music competition with compositions played that ranged from that of Haydn, the father of all chamber music, to up to the minute contemporary works that really blew my mind….so being a fan of what is described by impassioned followers as the queen of music ( a full blown symphony being the king) I am always loathe to miss out on a good dose of it by a nice, tight ensemble…..just like the one I described on this blog last week.


The Song Hong ensemble presented their last recital of the year in the concert hall of the Vietnam National Academy of Music. The VNAM is in the process of being rebuilt and extended. Fortuitously the architects and powers that be have incorporated the original, intimate and fabulously faux baroque concert hall into the renovations.

It’s a delightful auditorium and even if it’s a bit off the beaten track its well worth the effort to find out where it is and then how to negotiate the construction paraphernalia and attend a performance there. It’s not far, as a sparrow flies, from the glitzy 5 star Pullman. Song Hong had a full, youngish and attentive audience as four of them took their seats to play Mozart’s String Quartet no 19, one of six that Mozart dedicated to Haydn. It’s usually nicknamed the ‘Dissonant’ due to its slow introduction full of unresolved harmonies that flow over an intense and moody cello. But soon enough the intricate conversations between the first and second violins, the viola and cello begin to flow into a harmony that most classical music lovers recognize and can tap their fingers to. This is after the first violin takes control like a concerned head mistress in a proper private school. But alas, try as hard as she can, the head mistress can’t soothe all emotions and minor quarrels and squabbles break out like brush fires. Finally the three recalcitrant decide it’s time to resolve any future conflict and behave and the soprano voice of the violins joins the alto of the viola and the tenor of the cello in harmonious accord.

The rest of the delightful, 30 minute work is full of consenting adult conversational harmonies that flow up and over and in and out and explore each others capabilities, and that, in the third movement, become witty thrusts as various combinations of the instruments join together and play, intellectually, with and against each other…like a friendly game of chess. The final movement was designed by Mozart to be interpreted as a drama or a comedy and the Song Hong did the right thing and gave a combination of both with the dramatic slightly out in front.


Seasoned viola player Nguyen Nguyet Thu joined the others to make up a string quintet and play a really powerful interpretation of Mendelssohn’s String Quintet No 2. Thu started to learn the violin with her father who was Vietnam’s first viola teacher until she went to study under Yuri Bashmet at the Tchaikovsky Conservatory in Moscow and won a major prize in 1995. She was named the best Bach player in an international viola competition in London in 1997 and since then has played as principal viola and soloist in a number of orchestras in Europe and South East Asia. And what a listening treat we got of the work that Mendelssohn, composed when he was 36 and which he was so unsure about that he filed it away and it was not released for public pleasure until after his premature death at 38.

It was Song Hong playing at its best! The piece is almost orchestral in scale. The long impassioned first movement is led by the first violin almost playing as soloist and the swelling symphonic rhapsodies wring you dry. The second movement lets you relax into its light and airy tones and pizzicatos (and a member of the audience even decided to join in the feel of fantasy with a muted conversation on her mobile). But then it’s back to the nitty gritty of drama and pathos and the movement that blows your socks right off. Funerality carries you into its depths with an insistent drumming urging you to bury yourself in its drama, perhaps about the inevitability of death. The violins try to lift the atmosphere heavenwards but are grounded by the lower voices of the violas and cello, until a lone violin soars above and lets the sun spread its rays through heavy clouds. It’s like viewing a suddenly sunspilt landscape by 17th century Dutch artist Jacob van Ruisdael.


The last movement pushes the players to their utmost, after the tension they’ve just endured, as they shimmer and echo and bound along magnificently and echoes of the memorable melody from the first movement impishly seep and trickle into it. As the last triumphant notes break through you really know you’ve been taken on a tremendously energetic 30 minute journey through a mind in turmoil.

Thanks Song Hong for a sometimes exquisite night’s music.


For those interested here are some You Tube clips (unfortunately not by Song Hong) so that anyone bewildered by my free flow of wordiness can check that I’m not too far off the mark. First there’s the complete Mozart and then the first and fourth movements of the Quintet http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=mCOm4vv_37c

Kiem Van Tim is a keen observer of life in general and the Hanoi cultural scene in particular and offers some of these observations to the Grapevine. KVT insists that these observations and opinion pieces are not critical reviews. Please see our Comment Guidelines / Moderation Policy and add your thoughts in the comment field below.


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