Coffee Chats: Conductor Nguyen Phu Son Lives By Discipline In Creativity | Vietcetera
Do you love our content? Take 3 minutes to let us know your feedback!Start

Coffee Chats: Conductor Nguyen Phu Son Lives By Discipline In Creativity

“A standing ovation from the audience as the music stops is the best reward that any musician would gratefully receive.”

Conductor Nguyen Phu Son

Conductor Nguyen Phu Son | Source: Photosynthesis Concert

Vietnam’s youngest conductor Nguyen Phu Son is a household name to many big and small symphony orchestras. The young maestro, born in 1991, is also known for his contribution to the popularization of the clavecin – ancestor of the piano – to the Vietnamese public. 

From his very first piano lessons at the age of 16, Son now has 15 years of studying, working and playing in many orchestras from Europe to Vietnam. But there’s one thing he has always carried with him over the years: a sense of discipline that allows him to be selective with his creativity. 

Vietcetera asks Son to elaborate in our latest interview.

1. A multicultural environment requires learning various skills

A violist could easily bring their own instrument everywhere to play with ease, but that isn’t the case for a pianist. The latter must possess the ability to adapt quickly to an unfamiliar piano at every new concert.

‘Beethoven’s 250th Birthday Anniversary’ Concert | Source: Vietnam National Academy of Music
‘Beethoven’s 250th Birthday Anniversary’ Concert | Source: Vietnam National Academy of Music

The same thing applies to a conductor whose job is to work with different orchestras. Each orchestra has their own ways of responding to the baton, their own personality and expertise, with traditions and experience performing in a specific style — which has probably been established and developed throughout their respective history of dozens or even hundreds of years.

For instance, an orchestra in Europe may have a working style that is different from that of an Asian orchestra. Similarly, leading an ensemble of professional musicians is quite unlike conducting a student group.

Therefore, a conductor must meet the need for great flexibility: in arranging a piece of work, navigating the orchestra – conductor relationship, and putting on a show. Compromise between the orchestra and the conductor is essential for a successful performance. 

Moreover, conductors need to know the importance of learning, practicing and being creative — not only in the professional field but also in their personal life, as experience can only come from practice. You should also not only wait for opportunities to come, but take the initiative to create one for yourself. 

Nguyen Phu Son conducts and performs on a clavecin at the Christmas Concert in St. Joseph's Cathedral, Hanoi. | Source: Nguyễn Thành Trung 
Nguyen Phu Son conducts and performs on a clavecin at the Christmas Concert in St. Joseph's Cathedral, Hanoi. | Source: Nguyễn Thành Trung 

A dedicated conductor always puts their mind to their career and excels at a variety of musical mediums. My advice is to promote your strengths and, at all cost, try to conquer different aspects of your job, too. Understanding this and keeping a pure heart for music will help your music career thrive in the long run. 

2. Minimize communication to maximize work efficiency 

During rehearsal, a minimalist approach is preferable. The conductor’s instruction should be simplified and concise in order to deliver precise information to the musicians, as well as help save time and increase the efficiency of the rehearsal.

And during a performance, where verbal communication is not possible, conducting skills are a real lifesaver. Conducting is using body movements to direct a whole orchestra, and more than that, is conveying music through your expressions — to evoke emotions and motivation in your musicians. 

To me, these motions are a means of communication with the orchestra, rather than for the audience to enjoy, like the case of a dancing performance. Therefore, any attempts to strike an artistic pose are unnecessary and should be avoided.

Christmas Concert 2020 at St. Joseph's Cathedral, Hanoi | Source: Nguyễn Thành Trung
Christmas Concert 2020 at St. Joseph's Cathedral, Hanoi | Source: Nguyễn Thành Trung

 You can simply consider a conductor’s job in an orchestra to consist of two phases: in the rehearsal hall and on the stage. A maestro must be aware of the equal importance of both, so they can leverage their conducting expertise accordingly. No matter the phase, their duty is to provide the players everything they need in order to play well and beautifully.

3. Meticulous preparation is insurance for a performance’s success

In preparation for either a rehearsal or a performance, the conductor must spend a lot of time analyzing and studying the musical piece to work with the orchestra afterwards. The process would begin with playing through the entire piece on the piano, and then breaking it down in more detail. 

Nguyen Phu Son during an orchestra rehearsal | Source: Nguyễn Thành Trung
Nguyen Phu Son during an orchestra rehearsal | Source: Nguyễn Thành Trung

While analyzing, I also carefully plan how to put more sound characters to the work, like setting the right tempo and dynamics for each passage. After that, during the actual rehearsal, I would identify which parts musicians are having technical difficulties playing, and which passages need more interpreting or polishing.

Paying meticulous attention to this process will allow the conductor to not only digest the essence of a work and give more of their personal interpretations, but also make space for preparing and regulating rehearsal sessions. This way, they could maximize the efficiency of the rehearsals.

However experienced a conductor could be, they could still feel tense and anxious before working with a new ensemble. There might always be some potential risks of the unexpected that could derail the plan. 

The conductor is the one taking full responsibility for the performance of an ensemble of dozens or hundreds of players. For this reason, conducting is considered an extremely stressful job. 

Nguyen Phu Son and the Hanoi Philharmonic Orchestra at the
Nguyen Phu Son and the Hanoi Philharmonic Orchestra at the "Baroque Extravaganza" concert | Source: Vietnam National Academy of Music

I believe music is the only enjoyable thing in this life. A standing ovation from the audience as the music stops is the best reward that any musician would gratefully receive for a successful performance.

4. Take advantage of your experience to instruct and inspire  

A conductor should not only direct the orchestra with their movements, but also instructs them to play more effectively, and connects the individual players where there is a need for harmonizing. Give the players advice and suggestions that suit their needs. 

From a professional point of view, I would say the conductor is not allowed to repeat their gestures during the whole process of rehearsals and performance like a programmed robot. Rather, their body motion must follow the particular needs of the orchestra in each session.  

Photosynthesis fundraising concert at Hanoi Opera House | Source: Photosynthesis Concert 
Photosynthesis fundraising concert at Hanoi Opera House | Source: Photosynthesis Concert 

Conductors have to be aware of the importance of balancing musical sensibility and music theory. We must be able to inspire the entire ensemble during both rehearsals and performances.  

When it comes to music theory, the conductor's movements must be clean and precise, especially when there are dozens of instrumentalists relying on their one guide.

If someone accidentally plays off beat, the conductor is perhaps the only person able to save the whole performance and lead the strayer right back on track. This is also one of the conductor’s greatest duties — to deliver the best performance it can be. 

5. Be selective to pursue sustainable art values 

Objectively speaking, Vietnam’s classical music scene is seeing positive growth. However, to keep up with other Asian counterparts such as Korea, Japan or recently China, we have to start speeding up.   

Son performing at Christmas Concert 2020 | Source: Nguyễn Thành Trung 
Son performing at Christmas Concert 2020 | Source: Nguyễn Thành Trung

Phu In my opinion, classical music in Vietnam has been in fierce competition with other music genres that are more popular or easier to learn and listen to. While classical music has its own market, its presence is still considered much less apparent compared to the popularity of other music genres.  

A common misconception is that classical music belongs to Western culture — something alien and unfit to practice in an Asian country. I think it is not; classical music is all around us. 

One typical example is that during the 1990s, everyone thought the theme music of Vietnam Television’s weather forecast was upbeat, interesting and familiar. However, not everyone actually knew the name of that tune, which is The Four Seasons Concerto by Antonio Vivaldi.

Classical music is widespread in mass media, from cartoons, advertisements to videos of famous YouTubers. People usually find something good if it sounds familiar to them. This could be the answer to popularizing classical music in our country.

Nguyen Phu Son introducing Baroque music as part of the Evolution program at the Goethe-Institut Hanoi | Source: Yen Nhi Cao 
Nguyen Phu Son introducing Baroque music as part of the Evolution program at the Goethe-Institut Hanoi | Source: Yen Nhi Cao 

There have always been controversies about whether a type of art that is not profitable should be eliminated. Nevertheless, the ultimate purpose of art should be to help refine our sense of beauty, enrich the soul and encourage our creativity. 

Let’s hope that one day, our international friends will visit Vietnam not only to enjoy traditional folk arts like water puppets or chầu văn, but also for a genuine interest in our symphony orchestra concerts. 

Translated by Nguyễn Thị Bích Trâm