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The capital's first coffee bar to offer chamber music from around the world, including from Viet Nam, is booked out for every performance on the last Friday of each month.
CEG club not only offers a meeting place for chamber music audiences, but also a playing ground for your musicians and singers.
There is a room in Trung Nguyen Coffee on Ha Noi's Hai Ba Trung Street that never has an empty seat on the last Friday of the month. Its two hundred seats are always occupied, while some people even sit side-by-side on the floor to savour the extraordinary melodies on offer.
Founded by composer Nguyen Cuong, CEG is Viet Nam's first ever music club that provides free live high-quality chamber music in a coffee space.
You can tell it's an unusual coffee shop as soon as the music starts, because at this point, all other movements stop. The bar ceases to serve coffee and people stop drinking. Every sound is minimalised to give space for the chamber music to sublimate. Quiet but inspiring, it's been the CEG recipe for success since its debut in March last year.
"The public, from a music critic to an outsider who has no basic knowledge of the field, can come to listen to chamber music. All they need is a willing spirit and open heart," says Cuong.
Famous for his fierce and passionate songs about the Central Highlands, composer Cuong, the club's president and one of its founders, appears to have no prior connection with chamber music, but the club had been a long-lasting dream of 20 years for him before he could realise it.
"Vietnamese audiences have only limited chances to enjoy chamber music. Also, a huge investment is required to bring the music closer to its audiences, which few musicians can afford. For this reason, hundreds of chamber music pieces are just paperwork. Years after they were composed, none of them have been performed," says Cuong.
"The same happens to instrumental music. In other countries, instrumental music often developed first, followed by pop and rock. But the progress is vice versa in Viet Nam. Today, most domestic instrumental works are just unrealised documents," he adds.
Taking the first music symbols of the music alphabet to name CEG, the club was established with the aim to narrow the gap between instrumental and chamber music and its audience. The only motto for every performance is "resounding", since in the air of the coffe room, musicians and listeners found themselves as one - there is no space, no loud speakers, no microphones. The true beauty of chamber music could directly touch the hearts of its listeners.
"It is absolutely quiet, there are no sounds around except the notes from the piano on stage vibrating through the air. Although this is the first time I have attended a live chamber music performance, it felt amazing. The atmosphere is ideal to enjoy music to the fullest," says Trinh Thu Trang, an 18-year-old listener.
Meanwhile, Nguyen Ha Dung, a university student from Ha Noi, confides: "I am not learning music, so I can't understand them. But watching the musicians play, I could feel how hard it is for musicians to perform successfully. I have been gradually attracted to them."
It took Cuong and his club members several months to prepare the club's first performance. Since chamber music is renowned for being fastidious, they expected to have at least 20 listeners. To their surprise, there were 40 people at the first performance and listeners quickly increased to 50, 60, a hundred and more after each performance. Last month, over 200 people visited the club to listen to its now-famous compositions, despite heavy rains.
But the success of each performance is not reflected by the number of listeners, according to Cuong. Chamber music turns towards the inner feelings of its listeners, so it doesn't require a noisy and rowdy crowd. Not the number of listeners, but the maintenance of the club with one performance each month will reflect the club's success, he says.
At the beginning, Vietnamese artists were the main performers. But recently, more and more foreigners, musicians and listeners alike, have been attracted to CEG.
Last month, Korean tenor Park Sung-min and the ZION Korean Choir with 20 artists from South Korea joined CEG's ninth performance (CEG 9). Along with world-famous songs, Park Sung Min also presented the popular Vietnamese number, Hanoi: Belief and Hope, which received huge applause from the domestic audience.
"It is a rare opportunity to listen to my favourite Italian song O Sole Mio performed by a Korean tenor like Park," says Diana Tran, an overseas Vietnamese attending the performance. "And it is a surprise that he could sing a Vietnamese song so beautifully," she adds.
Believing they should not sell tickets, because it might create a barrier between the audiences and the artists, young musician Nguyen Ngoc Thuan, another founder of the club, reveals it was difficult at first to attract artists for the free performance.
"But when people understand that CEG is a working non-profit to promote chamber music, most give us support. Today, there are many performances that have the participation of top Vietnamese soloists who wanted to devote themselves to a meaningful night of music," says Thuan. Among them are popular names like Thanh Lam, Hong Nhung, and also music students. Regardless of the performers' fame, each are paid as small as 500,000 dong ($24) per performance.
"People asked me," says Cuong, "if you don't sell tickets and you don't find a financial backer, how long can these performances last?"
What helps the club maintain its activities is the fact that musicians and singers are very willing to come to performances where they are truly appreciated, he says.
"There was a 10-year-old girl who arrived at the club with a packet of candies. When she tried to open it during the performance, it created rustling sounds. The girl herself found it inappropriate, so she stopped and waited until after the performance to eat the candies. That showed me the problem is not often about our listeners, but about the stage. If we have a serious stage, we would have serious listeners," Cuong says.
When commercial music is dominating the domestic market, the activities of chamber clubs like CEG receives huge encouragement from musician circles.
Cat Van, vice president of the Viet Nam Music Association, is certainly behind the initiative. He said: "We've always believed that orthodox music in a country should not depend on commercial music. We felt very happy when CEG was established by Nguyen Cuong and his colleagues. I expect it will not develop as a birdie, but soar like an eagle."
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