The smooth criminals

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A group of music students forms the genre-bending Rhapsody Philharmonic, a classically trained orchestra known for its Michael Jackson cover

Members of Rhapsody Philharmonic during their daily practice

It's a motley crew, to say the least. There's Luu Quang Minh, a fourth-year composition student and the band's leader, who specializes in mixing Vietnamese traditional folk and western classical music.

Then there's Cao Vinh, who doubles as one of Hanoi's most popular club DJs. He does all of the orchestra's sound engineering and composes works that use modern electronic pop instruments to play fusions of Vietnamese and Western classical music.

These two form the core of Rhapsody Philharmonic, an orchestra recently formed by students at Hanoi's Vietnam National Academy of Music. Their YouTube videos have become increasingly popular as they breathe new life into centuries-old masterpieces while also transforming Michael Jackson's "Smooth Criminal" and hits from Lady Gaga into works of classical music.

After becoming an online sensation, the band played the academy's second Vietnam Music Day Festival on September 3. 

The group was born last September, according to Minh, who said they originally gathered on lunch breaks with the intention of playing a song in the school's talent competition. 

 "We were lucky to get 20 students who were interested," said Minh. The group played an experimental version of Michael Jackson's hit "Smooth Criminal" arranged for a classical orchestra by foreign musician David Garrett.

The performance was a success "not bad" said Minh and the orchestra has since swelled to 60 members aged from 17-27. Things are more serious now.


"We have our own PR and media department," said Minh. "Making the most of internet promotion through YouTube and Facebook is the way to achieve"¦ serious ambitions and goals, and to get professional organizations to help us"¦ every member must have their own responsibility in our orchestra."     

The group's latest performance for Music Day featured compositions by Minh and Vinh, also known by his DJ name, SlimV.

Doan Tuan Linh, Rhapsody Philharmonic's manager, said that the group also performed a classical Vietnamese rhapsody and Vietnamese pop song composed by their teacher Do Hong Quan.

Nguyen Hung Cuong, the group's drummer and a founding member, said that playing famous foreign hits was not a way to show-off, but rather a way to bring Rhapsody Philharmonic's music closer to the public.

"People will naturally pay attention to familiar songs played in a strange semi-classical mix and match. It truly sounds interesting," said Cuong. 

Cuong and his friend appear to have seamlessly meshed hobby and their work.

"We learn about Beethoven, Mozart and Haydn for our careers. But Lady Gaga, Guns N' Roses and Linkin'Park are also our passion. The combination is based on our experience and feeling," said Minh.

And without the passion, they wouldn't have much, as the philharmonic makes no money.

The Danish ambassador once asked Minh how much it cost to keep the band going.

The young orchestra also marks its trade with the harmony between the classical instruments and Vietnamese traditional ones

"He was totally astonished when I said we don't have even penny," said Minh. "He said it takes at least VND800 million to support an orchestra in foreign countries."

Minh then cracked a wide smile.

"I told my bandmates: 'oh, so we've earned around VND1.6 billion in two months!'"

Cuong and Minh both said that bringing classical music to the local youth through free workshops, open exchanges and performances was an important part of the band, as is their practice before or after practice sessions. 

But will spreading the passion find them money?

"Every orchestra in the world needs to find a financial supporter," said Minh. "We will do that in the future. But for now, the greatest reward is the audiences' ceaseless applause after each performance. It lets us believe that our devotion is truly appreciated."

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