History was being made on the evening of Friday, Dec. 6, when arguably the largest gathering of Vietnamese Catholics in Orange County took place at Christ Cathedral in Garden Grove, to participate in or attend a Vietnamese Christmas concert.
“This is history in the making: the first time ever we have so many (Orange County Vietnamese) together on one program,” said Jennifer Yen Pham, executive assistant to the Most Rev. Thanh Thai Nguyen, auxiliary bishop of the Diocese of Orange (who incidentally gave the evening’s only English-language speech).
“And most of the conductors here are conducting for the first time an orchestra this large (45 musicians),” continued Pham, who was part of the organizing committee spearheading the event and who credited Bishop Nguyen with coming up with the idea in the first place–the purpose being, according to Pham, “to create unity in our community.” Except for San Jose, Orange County—especially the area in mid-county known as Little Saigon—has the largest population of Vietnamese in the U. S.
Titled “Emmanuel,” a name that translates to “God with Us,” the concert featured more than 1,000 choir and solo singers from 16 Catholic parishes around the Christ Cathedral area in nearly a dozen choirs and choral combinations, singing two dozen seasonal selections, most (but not all) in Vietnamese.
“It’s a chance for the Vietnamese community to work together and pray together,” said Huy Doai Le, director of Vietnamese Music Ministry at Christ Cathedral and conductor of the cathedral’s 120-voiced Vietnamese Cathedral Choir, which performed one of the few non-Vietnamese pieces, a Latin-texted “Ave Maria” by Philip W. J. Stopford, a 42-year-old English sacred-music composer.
“I noticed the program had a lot of Christmas carols but few on the events leading up to the Nativity, so I wanted to cover one of those events: Gabriel the Archangel announcing to Mary she is to bear the Son of God,” said Le in explaining his decision for choosing the 2017 work, which he had the choir perform while processing down an aisle in the back that led to the stage.
The concert, subtitled “Night of Sacred Music,” was colorful, both aurally and visually, especially with many of the women dressed in traditional Vietnamese gowns and a nun’s chorus in traditional habits. In general, whenever the singers were not performing, they spread out over the three main seating areas of the cathedral (ground level and left and right balconies), easily filling up the former Crystal Cathedral. It got so it was difficult to find anyone in the audience not a participant or not watching a family member or friend sing but being present simply to watch a concert.
But they were there.
“My wife,” said Sean Patterson, when asked what—or who—was responsible for his attending the concert. “But this is just excellent: so many voices blending together and sounding beautiful. The whole production is amazing and very coordinated. They’ve had to have put in a lot of time. I had no idea there were so many nuns directing choirs. And I’m very impressed with the young man who played ‘O Holy Night.’”
Patterson referred to Evan Li, a young boy who played a solo piano arrangement of the 1847 Christmas carol by Adolphe Adam (of “Giselle” fame) officially titled “Cantique de Noel.” Li played with a grace and maturity well beyond his youth. His performance provided one of the highlights of the evening—an evening which, with long introductions before every work, lasted almost four hours (including intermission). That, however, is typical for a Vietnamese concert.
“I really enjoyed this concert,” said Patterson’s wife, Thuy Do, who is Vietnamese. “The whole concert reminded me of Vietnam. I couldn’t ask for more.”
“I’m not disappointed at all,” Patterson agreed, “even though it’s not your traditional Christmas concert.”
One sign that this, indeed, was not your traditional Christmas concert (besides the language) occurred when the “Hallelujah” Chorus from Handel’s “Messiah” was performed: no one in the audience stood up. No doubt they haven’t heard of King George II (who started the practice). Oh, yes: it was also sung in Vietnamese.
The program had a few other familiar tunes, such as “Adeste fidelis”/ “O Come, All Ye Faithful,” “Silent Night! Holy Night!” and “Gesu Bambino.” Occasionally, these were sung in English but then always followed by a Vietnamese version, to stay true to the theme of this being a Vietnamese Christmas concert—the first such in Orange County, but by no means the last.