Besides a few cultural performances here and there, there aren’t a lot of options. That’s why I was both pleased and surprised to see that HCMC had its own orchestra: Saigon Orchestra, a 45-piece musical outfit, performing regularly from the HCMC Conservatory of Music in District 1. They’re currently performing their Rainbow Show weekly.
However, is it worth the visit? I went to find out.
All the Colours of the Rainbow (Show)
Saigon’s official orchestra is relatively new, having formed in October 2016. Led by conductor,composer, and pianist Le Nhat Quang, the group rehearsed and created their inaugural Rainbow Show over a period of six months.
Throughout the hour-long program, Quang plays with both sights and sounds to create a panorama of colours but also of feelings. He deftly pairs both Vietnamese and Western songs together with a backdrop of changing scenes and stage lighting reminiscent of a Queen show. Taken together, the entire experience is one of energy, vitality and heart.
Take the opening number, for example: the show starts with a bang, not a whisper. Trumpets sound, red lights flood the stage and an exuberant, happy tune fills the conservatory hall. Within minutes of the show, I realised that this is not one of the traditional, understated orchestras I’ve seen before.
Throughout the show, the colours change, and so do the songs. Quang has expertly arranged the program to weave between European songs, originally written by greats like Edvard Grieg and J.S. Bach, and Vietnamese melodies, composed mainly by Quang himself. The results? A show both high energy and carefully controlled, like a fire just moments away from becoming a blaze.
Defining a Vietnamese Orchestra
On the Rainbow Show’s program, a mission statement runs along the bottom: the Rainbow Show is “[a] journey through Vietnam’s beauty, narrated by the sounds of Vietnamese traditional instruments and a symphony orchestra.” There’s no single way the Saigon Orchestra accomplishes this feat, but by the end of the show, they’ve certainly done it.
While a traditional symphony orchestra at its core, the Saigon Orchestra is much more than that. The instrumental focus shifts constantly between European instruments and Vietnamese counterparts. While one song might highlight Western percussion, the next brings in gongs and rhythmic drums from the Central Highlands. This interchange between East and West does more than show the expertise of the players in the orchestra: it also plays upon the multicultural heritage of Vietnam as a country.
This meeting between the cultural hemispheres is perhaps best highlighted during the rendition of Vittorio Monti’s wistful Czardas, a violin piece played adroitly by the orchestra’s lead violinist, Dinh Tien Lu. What is usually a solo becomes a musical duel when Dinh Nhat Minh, master of the traditional Vietnamese flute (sáo trúc), appears on the stage for his own take on the quick melody. Who ultimately wins? You’ll have to find out yourself.
Although it’s always there, the Vietnamese influence comes out full-force in the latter half of the show, as more and more traditional instruments start to pepper the stage. Stand out spots include a beautiful zither, played to represent the royal Nguyen Dynasty heritage, along with the high-energy Highlander’s Dance, complete with several bamboo xylophones (đàn T'rưng) and drums.
Plus, the Saigon Orchestra isn’t just instrumental. Background singers compliment the musical instruments throughout the show, and the program contains several songs performed by operatic singers who belt out their tunes with remarkable force. Three vocal performances are interspersed throughout the show.
More than Just Music
For people worried that the orchestra might be too stuffy or too boring for a night on the town, let it be known: the Saigon Orchestra’s Rainbow Room is different. The only formal attire you’ll likely see will be on stage. Here the emphasis is much more about the musicians and singers showing the audience the beauty of Vietnam through Vietnamese music.
In a traditional European orchestra, chances are everyone would be dressed singularly: penguin suits, all black and white. Not so at the Rainbow Show, a presentation that values vibrant culture rather than regimented exactness. While the traditional orchestra was clad in formal evening attire, the musicians performing the Vietnamese instruments looked markedly different, wearing brilliant gold, red, white and blue áo dài, complete with matching Vietnamese headdresses.
The juxtaposition between the literal rainbow of clothing proudly worn by the musicians specialising in Vietnamese instruments and the formal attire of the majority of the orchestra was striking, and spoke to the show in general: rather than adhere to the traditional definition of an orchestra, this one is done in Saigon’s colourful style.
Who Should Go
This is a great show, though some people will enjoy it more than others. If you’re a traveller looking to learn more about Vietnam’s modern culture, the Rainbow Show is a great representation of the creativity and fun the denizens of this city enjoy.
For expats looking to do something a bit different with their night than the usual restaurant-then-movie routine, this is an event for you. The show starts rather early, at 6 p.m., making it an ideal start to an evening, followed by dinner and drinks at any of the restaurants located just blocks away, one of the other pluses to the HCMC Conservatory’s District 1 location.
If you’re interested to learn more about the musicians, be sure to stick around after the show—the musicians head to the lobby, where they’re more than happy to answer your questions.