The association between classical music and grand theaters is deeply rooted in the historical development of both art forms. Theaters such as the Vienna State Opera, La Scala in Milan, and the Royal Albert Hall in London, or the Hanoi Opera House have become iconic settings for performances of symphonies, operas, and other classical works.

In Vietnam, the appreciation of classical music has taken a unique twist – far from the conventional setting, individuals indulge in the timeless melodies while leisurely sipping a cup of tea. This experience artfully unfolds within a special project called “Schubert in a Mug” which began three years ago.

The beautiful “Two Pieces for Violin and Piano” by French composer Lili Boulanger opened the intimate and cozy 30th session of Schubert in a Mug which was founded by soloist, as well as chamber and orchestra musician Phan Do Phuc.

Phuc has been appointed principal cellist of many reputable orchestras such as the Napa Valley Festival Orchestra, New York Classical Players Orchestra, and the Pacific Music Festival Orchestra. After finishing his Doctor of Musical Arts degree in Cello Performance at Stony Brook University, New York in 2020, Phuc returned to Vietnam and has since appeared as the Guest Principal Cellist of the Vietnam National Symphony Orchestra (VNSO) and the Sun Symphony Orchestra (SSO). But not many people know that deep inside this successful musician lies a surprisingly simple longing.

Phuc said “Just simply from the urge, I really want to play for someone. And to me, personally, it doesn’t need to be a big crowd. I don’t feel the hunger to play for 600 people in the opera house. I don’t have that particular kind of hunger. But I really enjoy it when I play for even five people, but they listen very intently. So then, just very naturally, I started looking in that direction.”

To create a place to deliver classical music to wider audience, Phuc immediately thought about a diverse, thriving café scene in the capital city Hanoi. With charming traditional establishments and trendy modern spaces, cafes serve as more than just places for enjoying coffee. They are social hubs where locals and tourists alike gather to unwind, socialize, and savor the city’s unique atmosphere.

Phuc said “Hanoi has a great, big cafe culture and there are so many beautiful cafes in Hanoi. And then again, I felt like I can’t do it by myself. So I talked to my dear friend back then. I talked to Chup Chup. She was a Thai violinist, at the time working for the Sun Symphony. And then pianist Hoang Ho Thu who is my very good friend. I said I want to do it every month. This kind of just very simple gathering, and playing for a group of 20 to 30 people.”

And fortunately, Phuc’s friends all shared the same hunger with him, that they want to play for the audience and they enjoy the intimacy in a small setting. “So, we started in August 2020 and that was the birth of Schubert in a Mug,” Phuc said.

If you are wondering if Schubert in a Mug only plays compositions by Austrian composer Franz Schubert, the answer actually goes beyond featuring this composer’s music. But it thrives on his unique performance style.

Phuc said “Many people asked why is it not Ravel, Beethoven, Tchaikovsky in the mug. I think for me, of course, first of all, he’s my personal favorite. And also, at the time, there was a model called “Schubertiade”. It’s when he called people, his dear friends, to his house and he played his new compositions for them. He composed a lot of songs, more than 600, so he would invite a singer and he would play the piano, and then introduce a new song he just wrote. So as you see, it’s very close to what we do at “Schubert in a Mug”. So I felt, by nature, it fit very well.”

“Schubert in a Mug” is also inspired by “Groupmuse” which brings live performances of classical music into living rooms and other unique spaces throughout New York. This model fosters an intimate connection between musicians and audiences, transforming homes and unconventional venues into vibrant concert spaces.

In addition to its café setting, Schubert in a Mug also hosts concerts in art spaces. One such regular venue is Tita Art whose name means peace of mind. Tita Art delves into the core of Asian art and culture, presenting a diverse array of experiences – from tea ceremonies to flower arrangements, wood art, ceramics, fashion, music, painting, and beyond.

Phan Anh Tuan, the owner of TITA Art, said “Indulging in live classical music at TITA Art is a seamless experience, complemented by our curated selection of classical genres like ceramics and flowers. While classical music stems from Western traditions, our fusion of Eastern arrangements creates a harmonious convergence.”

Tuan is a devoted fan of classical music, having developed a passion for the genre at a young age. Surrounded by friends working in the industry, he intimately understands the essence of the art form and the dedication artists put into their craft.

He said, in the world of classical arts, including classical music, there’s a commitment to high standards that requires daily practice. This routine enhances internal skills and nurtures a deep connection with life.
“A classical artist may need decades to be successful. So, I aspire to inspire young artists by providing a space where they can live out their musical dreams,” Tuan added.

Behind Schubert in a Mug is a team of passionate musicians, including Phuc who plays the cello, Hoang Ho Thu and Taiwanese Liao Hsin-Chiao who both play the piano, Hoang Manh Lam who plays the oboe, Hoang Ho Khanh Van who plays the violin, and Tran Khanh Quang who plays the clarinet.

Since its establishment, Schubert in a Mug has organized more than 30 concerts of different sizes and formats: from cozy and intimate gatherings at cafes and tea houses, to performances in front of a live audience of hundreds at the Vincom Center for Contemporary Art, the Goethe Institute, and Hanoi’s Old Quarter Culture Exchange Center; to free online concerts during periods of social distancing during the COVID‑19 pandemic.

Attendees range from seasoned music enthusiasts to those intrigued by classical music yet unsure how to approach it. The unique environment crafted by Schubert in a Mug strikes a balance – intimately warm yet artistically refined – allowing the audience to freely enjoy the music at its best. Truong Nu Hoang Giang is a regular audience member of Schubert in a Mug concerts.

She said she’s been into classical music for quite a while, but in Vietnam, it’s often the familiar tunes like “In A Persian Market” or “Moonlight Sonata”. What sets Schubert in a Mug apart for Giang is the thoughtful introduction to each piece.

“The musicians take the time to explain classical music intricately, deepening my understanding and appreciation. It’s like having a personal music tutor introducing new works that I find myself listening to repeatedly. One standout favorite of mine is “Four Sketches” by English composer Gordon Jacob, a mesmerizing composition featuring piano and bassoon,” she said.

During every intimate concert at Schubert in a Mug, approximately 30 to 40 audience members gather closely, some seated just 1 to 2 meters away from the musicians. This proximity creates an exhilarating experience for the audience, particularly those from Western countries, the provenance of classical music.

One such enthusiast is Koos Neefjes from the Netherlands. He said the organizers have a very sensitive way of talking about what is obviously their love. They love music and they love sharing it with people. They have a very nice way of introducing individual composers or songs or music pieces.

“As you heard today, we also get the text of a song. Even though it’s not sung by somebody, but at least the audience is being sort of shown or taught what they will hear afterwards. And so, that’s very different from being on your own at home and listening to a music piece, you know, on your phone or whatever. And it is even different from a very large scale concert which is less intimate and less personal and you cannot catch everything. So, I really like this,” Koos said.

While Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City are two big cultural and artistic hubs in Vietnam, the avenues for experiencing live classical music are often limited and typically grand in scale. The conventional standard involves large theaters, expansive stages, and orchestral performances, often requiring a substantial financial investment for ticket purchases. This setup can be disheartening for music enthusiasts with limited financial resources, making attendance at such events an uncomfortable prospect.

Schubert in a Mug invites foreign musicians not only to delight music enthusiasts but also as a platform for local musicians to learn from these talented guests, enhancing their own skills. Coming to the latest concert was Chien Min Yen, widely acclaimed as one of the foremost musicians of our time. He hails from the first generation of international Taiwanese violinists. Yen’s very first visit to Vietnam was inspired by Schubert in a Mug.

Yen said that in his opinion, it doesn’t matter if the concert is big or small because music is meant to communicate with people. He thinks that this kind of setting is even better than a big concert because the audience can hear better, and he can see the audience’s faces and how they feel when he plays. He enjoys this kind of atmosphere.

Schubert in a Mug also serves as a platform for young music enthusiasts seeking direction. These individuals discover that artists have a dedicated space to showcase their talents. Many parents, recognizing the value, pay a monthly fee for their children to attend these concerts. 12-year-old Truong Bao Anh began learning the violin at the age of four. Throughout the two-hour concert, she is captivated by the performing artists.

She said that as a member of the orchestra, her focus typically revolves around listening to the harmony and other instruments, aiming to play her part in the best possible way.

“However, today, experiencing the role of an audience member, I find a sense of coziness. The artist’s communication with the audience adds an extra layer, making the music more captivating. Particularly, I’m profoundly impressed by the way Taiwanese artist Chien Min Yen skillfully ran the bow across the violin strings,” Bao Anh added.

Lam Bao Ngoc, accustomed to performing in front of hundreds, shares her mixed emotions while transitioning from the role of a performer to that of an audience member.

She said “The artists are truly exceptional; their performances give me goosebumps, leaving me almost speechless. I deeply admire their profound emotional connection to music. The setting here, while not overly formal, adds an intimate touch to classical music.”

Sitting just 1 to 2 meters away from the artists allows the audience to witness their raw emotions and passion for the instrument, Ngoc said, adding that “as a singer, witnessing the audience immersed in my music definitely ignites my passion on stage. Schubert in a Mug undoubtedly offers a mutually beneficial experience, where both artists and listeners exchange a vibrant energy.”

According to its manager, Nguy Hai An, Schubert in a Mug aims to gather resources from diverse sponsors to organize free community concerts. The funds generated from these events will be directed towards social development activities.

She said “Schubert in a Mug acknowledges that each event contributes positively to art’s impact on social development. Encouraging artists to cultivate social awareness enhances their capacity to participate in more meaningful initiatives.”

At the end of each concert, audience members are given a piece of paper where they can write a message to the artists at Schubert in a Mug. Some called the concert a cool summer shower, some said they had tears in their eyes, some others sent a heart to the artists, thanking them for teaching them how to love again.

Schubert, himself, once said, “Music is the language of the heart, the voice of the soul.” Whether it is the soaring notes of a symphony or the intimate strains of a heartfelt melody, music has the power to touch our hearts, communicate our innermost feelings, and bridge the gap between individuals and cultures in a way that no other form of expression can achieve.