TFI conductor feature: In conversation with Adrian Tan

adriantanAdrian Tan talks to Derek Lim about the premiere, iced coffee and more
Apart from being a TFI alumnus, Adrian Tan’s (left) passion and talent for conducting has led him to be appointed as Music Director of the Braddell Heights Symphony Orchestra and guest conductor of the Vietnam National Symphony Orchestra since 2007. He was appointed Music Director of the Saigon Philharmonic since March 2012 and conducts the premiere of Vietnamese composer Nguyen Van Nam’s Ninth symphony this Friday (27 Sep 2013).

The Flying Inkpot: Hi Adrian! Thanks for agreeing to be interviewed for The Flying Inkpot. How did you first start conducting the Saigon Philharmonic Orchestra?

AT: Upon my return from Australia where I completed my Masters in Conducting at the Sydney Conservatorium of Music, I was invited to guest conduct the Saigon Philharmonic (then known as the Ho Chi Minh Conservatory of Music Symphony Orchestra – one of two professional orchestras in Ho Chi Minh City) based on the reputation that I had developed over the years in Vietnam conducting the VNSO in Hanoi. It was a programme featuring Singaporean pianist Lim Yan, performing Beethoven’s “Emperor” Concerto, Bach’s Brandenburg Concerto No. 3 & Dvorak’s 8th Symphony. There was really an instant affinity between the orchestra and me – and I suppose that was the reason why I was invited a few months later to become their Music Director. They have been incredibly supportive so far, and have given me a free hand to work not only on the musical aspects of the orchestra, but also the branding and management. It has been a really great learning experience for me so far.

You will be conducting the premiere of the Ninth Symphony of Nguyen Van Nam, a Vietnamese composer who however, not many will have heard of before. How do you feel about this?

The preparation for the performance of any new work is always an exciting, but intimidating task. Both musicians and audience are unfamiliar with the work, and usually the composer, and the challenge is always how to best use the rehearsal time to re-create what exists only on ink and paper, into a meaningful sound world. Each composer has his or her own “sound” and ways to express their ideas. For me personally, being a foreigner to Vietnamese culture, this has created additional complexities because Nguyen Van Nam’s music draws not only on traditional music, it also features a choir and vocal soloists singing in Vietnamese and evokes images of old Vietnam that I can only access in my imagination, and through the paintings, photos I have seen and books I have read. At the same time, I feel privileged because I have this opportunity to have an intimate insight into a world that I would otherwise never have known through the eyes of another artist. What more can one ask for?


Can you tell us a little more about this composer, his influences, his life and and his symphony? What other works has he written?

Nguyen Van Nam (right, with Adrian Tan, photo credit Adrian Tan) is one of the Vietnam’s most eminent composers, decorated by his country for contributions to culture and much respect by Vietnamese musicians and composers. He has also taught many Vietnamese musicians, including the Concert Master of the Saigon Philharmonic and the Director of the Ho Chi Minh Conservatory of Music He is in his 80s, educated in Moscow and like many from his generation, speaks fluent French.Like many of the composers from the ex-Soviet Union, the influence of Dmitri Shostakovich is unmistakable. But Maestro Nguyen clearly draws inspiration from his motherland, and the patriotic feelings he has growing up in Vietnam where as we know has experienced much struggle and hardship from the Vietnam War (known as the “American War” here). The Vietnamese are a proud people, with a rich and unique culture. As far I know, he’s written quite a lot of music – and is regarded as Vietnam’s most important composer for music in the western classical style.

The Symphony is in 4 movements, with the outer movements featuring vocal soloists and a choir. The music draws its inspiration from a poem by the Vietnamese poet Le Anh Xuan loosely translated as “The River of Memories”. The music is very pastoral and nostalgic, recollecting Old Vietnam and memories of childhood. For example, in the first movement, the soloists and choir evoke a traditional lullaby tune – with only the vowels “O” and “Ou” – which I understand is what mothers living on the river, in the South of Vietnam, use to sing their babies to sleep. The second movement is marked Allegro Scherzando – a playful “joke” with pizzicato stings and woodblock (think street noodle hawkers in old Singapore) a la Tchaikovsky. The third movement is a beautifully ethereal Adagio in which I imagine peasants singing heard on a mountain from a great distance and then a celebratory Finale – but like Shostakovich’s music, or for that matter many of the Russian composers, the music is never simplistically cheerful or victorious or sad, but is always coupled with an almost sardonic tension. When the music is happy, it ‘suffers’ – and when the music is tragic, it’s often sarcastically jovial.

What challenges are there in conducting this symphony? 

Besides the fact that we have to put such a massive work together in a little less than a week, the biggest challenge is really one of being able to do justice to the work. As I mentioned earlier, being an outsider to his culture makes it at once difficult for me to say that I can empathize with all the complex elements in it that may be familiar, or even obvious, to the Vietnamese. But at the same time, I really revel in this because I get to look at it from a different perspective, which often surprises me – because it is always through art that you discover that despite coming from different cultures and having experienced different histories, we are more alike than we are different.

How many rehearsals did you take and how long have you studied this work?

We have a total of 5 rehearsals (to learn the Symphony and to rehearse the fiendishly difficult Rachmaninoff Piano Concerto No. 3 with Singaporean Albert Lin). The work was sent to me about 3 months ago – and I’ve been learning it since I received it. There has been a lot of back and forth as the manuscript is handwritten, and I was sent a photocopy which was not 100% clear.I could not communicate with the composer directly to get clarifications for my queries. I met the composer for the first time on Monday and got the original handwritten manuscript from him, after which I spent all of Monday night working things out before my Tuesday morning rehearsal. I’m responding to this interview after that rehearsal where I also had the chance to clarify some markings, pitches and tempos. I think the work will go on tonight, and possibly until the performance itself!

Do you intend to perform this piece in Singapore?

 Well, I would love for the Saigon Philharmonic to perform in Singapore and when they do, I have no doubt that there will be music by Vietnamese composers on the programme. This work is hard to do on tour, and difficult for an orchestra from another country to perform because of the huge orchestration and the requirement to sing in Vietnamese. As you know, I’m a strong believer in contemporary music – and performing the music of Singaporean composers. While I wear a different hat in Vietnam, I believe in the same thing – that a Vietnamese orchestra must make it a priority to perform works of their own composers. I’ve performed music by Singaporean composers – including Leong Yoon Pin, Ho Chee Kong, Kelly Tang and Bernard Tan with the VNSO, and I’ve plans to introduce some Singaporean music in my programmes in HCM City too. I think I do see my role being a conductor both in Singapore and Vietnam to bridge the people of the two countries, and others in the region and beyond, through my music.

What unique challenges are there in conducting a Vietnamese symphony orchestra? 

Well, symphony orchestras are very interesting entitles. At one level, they are alike and share many commonalities but on another level, they are as different as the people that form their ranks. Vietnamese orchestras comprise only of Vietnamese musicians. The former director of the VNSO once told me that he is happy to work with foreign conductors and soloists, but in his opinion, for the the existence of a symphony orchestra to be justified at all in Vietnam – it should comprise only of Vietnamese. Obviously, there is the issue of language but I’ve found that to be a lesser issue after the many years working here. The Vietnamese people are very boisterous – they are easily excitable, not at all “disciplined” as we sometimes expect from musicians in Singapore. But at the same time, I’ve found that they bring that same energy to their music-making which really inspires me.

HCMConservMusicHow is the concert hall where the Saigon Philharmonic rehearse/perform?

The Ho Chi Minh Conservatory of Music (left, photo credit has, in the opinion of many people, the best concert hall, acoustics-wise, in the south of Vietnam. It’s a small hall, with around 450 seats, and for most part, our concerts are well attended. It’s situated in District 1, which is smack in the middle of the city, so it’s very convenient for the audience. It’s a great advantage to have the privilege of rehearsing in the hall that you are performing in, and I see that as one of the Saigon Philharmonic’s greatest assets.

In a country that is still suffering from a high poverty rate, how important is culture and music (and specifically ‘Western’ music) to the Vietnamese? 

First of all, I’d not say that there is “suffering” in any way or that poverty is “high”. I also do not agree with the suggestion that the appreciation of culture is somehow proportionate to the standard of living or the state of the economy. I suppose that comparison is relevant, and perhaps not entirely misguided in some countries. However, I do think it is a red herring when investigating how vibrant culture is in any society.The HCM Conservatory of Music has 1,500 students – despite the fact that musicians here cannot rely on performing alone to make a living. I’m told that the reason for this, is that in Vietnamese society, possible due to the influence of the French and the Russians, being musical is still regarded as an attribute that elevates one’s standing in society. There is a premium to being regarded as “cultured” – but it’s not an economic trait but a social one. I was told recently that more than 70,000 ABRSM music exams take place in Singapore every year, but with those numbers of music students, surely there must be no issue filling up concert halls! We know that halls are still sometimes still not filled up, even when there are great performers on stage. Yet, surely Singapore is a far more economically affluent society!

I think the problem of the relevance of “western’ music to any Asian society, or as a matter of fact, to the societies in the West which can claim this music as part of their heritage, is one which we ALL deal with today. There’s no one reason why classical music audiences are declining, and there’s much to be done if we hope that this great legacy will continue to be enjoyed by future generations.

Are there any lessons Singapore can learn from Vietnam, music-wise?

No, I don’t think the “lessons” are transferrable as each has its unique circumstances. I think each society has to first learn its own lessons – and I’ve tried to learn about each society in my work in both. Having the privilege of being active in both countries has certainly given me the privileged position of being able to make comparisons, may they be fair or unfair. This has given me much to reflect on, and over the years, has shaped my own perspectives about music and music-making.

What do you love about Vietnam?

Vietnamese iced coffee

Vietnamese iced coffee (photo: Derek Lim)

Oh boy, this is a tough one. There are so many things. The warm and always hospitable Vietnamese people who have adopted me as one of their own, the incredible food (what passes off as Vietnamese food outside of Vietnam pales in comparison), Vietnamese green tea and coffee (cà phê sữa đá) which I am addicted to, the crazy traffic that makes every road crossing an adventure – but most of all, how after so many years, I still manage to be surprised on every trip by something I see, hear or smell. I’m grateful as a Singaporean, as I’m sure anyone who has lived away from home for any amount of time will say, that I’ve been blessed with a chance to work and live alongside another people and culture. To be able to do so as a musician is just the greatest blessing than no one can deserve. It’s possibly made me even more Singaporean as I constantly reflect on what makes me who I am when I am amongst friends who grew up so differently than I did. I guess in short, I love Vietnam for being Vietnam and I am deeply grateful to the Vietnamese musical community for giving me the privilege to be a part of them.

Thank you, Adrian!

You’re most welcome. Thank you for being interested in my work!

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