Competition necessary to develop the arts

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The Vietnam National Symphony Orchestra plays at a concert in
Hanoi last February

Graham Sutcliffe, who has been living in Vietnam for 20 years, is now conductor of the Vietnam National Opera Ballet. Previously, he was the conductor of the Vietnam National Symphony Orchestra in Hanoi and also worked in Ho Chi Minh City. Sutcliffe sat down with Thanh Nien Weekly to explore the bigger picture of the development of classical music in Vietnam.

Thanh Nien Weekly: You have worked with several orchestras in Vietnam. How do you assess Vietnam's symphony and chamber music compared with those of other countries around the world?

Graham Sutcliffe: I love working with orchestras in Vietnam. Vietnamese artists play music primarily because they love music. It's different in Europe, where people are concerned with earning a lot of money. Here, in Vietnam, people do it for their love of music, their love of art and culture. I am very excited to work with people who are passionate about music.

The problem in Vietnam compared to other countries is that there are fewer players, so we have less choice; there is no competition. Without competition, the standard can't grow higher. The standard is also inconsistent. In the orchestras, some players are just as good as they are in other countries, but some players are well below this standard. This is very bad for an orchestra, which has up to 90 players, and all must be up to par. We don't have that in Vietnam, as some are excellent, some are bad, and some fall in the middle.

For example, players of string instruments, such as the violin and cello, are at a very high level. A lot of people learn to play violin and cello, so we have a lot of choices. The best players enter the orchestras. The problem in Vietnam is the lack of people playing the brass instruments, such as the trumpet and horn. There is no tradition, in Vietnam of playing the trumpet, except in the army. However, army music is different from orchestral music. So the level of brass players is far below that of string ones. It is not good for an orchestra, where every one must be at the same very high standard.

Are you pleased with Vietnamese musicians in general?

Yes, of course, because they are improving all the time. I have worked for many years with Vietnamese players, and many other local and foreign conductors. Every concert they choose more difficult pieces, so the level of the orchestras is gradually being raised. Now the orchestras are playing very difficult pieces that they never could have played 10 years ago. So they have improved.

But there are still some pieces that they cannot play. Top-class professional orchestras must be able to play everything. They have improved a lot in Vietnam, but they still have a long way to go.

What has disappointed you when working with them?

I'm not disappointed with the artists, but I sometimes become disappointed with the system. The system in Vietnam is not supportive of classical music or classical art. Not only musicians but also dancers and singers have to struggle against the system, which does not support them enough.

You mean the state policy does not encourage them to develop, or is their salary too low?

Yes, both. Here I feel the arts have not been supported well by the system. Also I'm disappointed with the system of organization. Sometimes the orchestras and the grand ballets organize concerts, but they are not advertised.

The advertising and marketing are very bad sometimes, so nobody knows about the concerts. These aspects surrounding the performance are crucial. Events are not well attended. The orchestras are quite good, but the marketing, advertising, promotion and ticket sales are inadequate. It disappoints me. We do a concert and not many people attend because nobody knows. Sometimes people come, it's ok, but they didn't buy the tickets. They get the tickets for free. I think orchestras should make money. They should sell tickets. All organizations sell tickets. They don't do this very well in Vietnam.

Perhaps Vietnamese don't have a taste for classical music while their income is low, so it is difficult to sell tickets?

No, I don't agree. Western music is not a part of Vietnamese traditional music. But look at Japan, Hong Kong, and Singapore; they are Asian cultures but also love western music and western art. They have learned to appreciate them.

Many Vietnamese do appreciate music, and are willing to pay for it. It's nice to spend the evening with friends at the theater or opera house. A lot of people want to do this. I think we should have more marketing, advertising and promotion, and then many more Vietnamese people will become acquainted with art, culture and music.

But why do so few Vietnamese people appreciate classical music?

It is due to the education system. It is a very big issue. Western classical music is very complex: if it is understood, you will have huge demand. Without understanding, you cannot appreciate. Concert programmers must think more about their audience. They should present concerts which appeal to the largest audience.

Sometimes programs with long pieces are difficult for audiences to get through. Some of orchestras, conductors and organizers do a poor job choosing programs.

So the main thing is to teach people very simply. Music is not difficult. You don't have to understand how many melodies are contained in a piece or every technical issue. Listen to something. Do you like it? Yes or no. That's enough.

What should Vietnam do to improve its musical taste?

The most important thing now is to increase the salary of musicians. If people know they can earn enough money through a job in music or the arts, then more people will choose to do it. Now there are too few people. The National Conservatory of Music has two thousand students, maybe a few more. That's not enough. Many people in Vietnam do not choose music because they say: "I can never earn enough money to make a living."

In Europe, musicians earn enough to support their families. Orchestras should increase their marketing, advertising and ticket sales in order to pay musicians a higher salary.

Considering Vietnam's population of 86 million, how many students should the National Conservatory of Music have?

Look at England, a country with 60 million people, which has 100,000 students studying art. That's good because there's a lot of competition. In a way, competition is very good. Everyone has to get better and better. There are three conservatories of music in England alone. Every university in England has a music department where people can study instruments or music theory, putting them on the path to become music teachers.

Will you stay here long term and continue to contributing to Vietnam's musical development?

I hope so. The most attractive aspect of working here is the people who share my passion for music and art. Although their salary is low, they still follow music. They understand me, and that's very nice for a conductor.

However, there are some things that have disappointed me. For example, when we prepare for a concert in Europe, the normal protocol includes two or three rehearsals. In Vietnam, we have ten. It's too many, because some people are missing. They have other things to do. Not everyone can attend each rehearsal. An orchestra has 60-70 people, and an opera has over 100. Every player must attend each rehearsal. When everyone has to come for 10 rehearsals, it is very difficult. Although the result is good, the process is too long.

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