Music review: Southwest Chamber Music takes on Vietnam

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Southwest Chamber Music’s ‘Ascending Dragon Music Festival,” the largest cultural exchange yet between the U.S. and Vietnam, started small Saturday night in Pasadena. The pieces were, with a short exception, for four or fewer strings. The setting was the intimate gallery space of the Armory Center for the Arts.

The festival, though, will be broad. Over the next two months, concerts and workshops will be held here (Pasadena and Los Angeles) and there (Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City). Performances will include new work by one of America’s most promising young composers, Alexandra du Bois, and its oldest, 101-year-old Elliott Carter, alongside progressive Vietnamese composers, young and old as well.

What we share culturally with a country in which we once waged war is to be learned. But it was a moment of wonder that the first sounds heard in the Armory, the imitation of birdsong, represented perhaps music’s earliest and most universal calling, yet also powerfully symbolized the complex relationship between the U.S. and Indochina. That call of a dove came courtesy of a quiet, young American who asked that we acknowledge the past to behold the promise of the future, to think of music as a third way.

“An Eye for an Eye Makes the Whole World Blind” was written for the Kronos Quartet in 2003, when Du Bois was 22. It is the most impressive work by a composer of that age I have heard since the early pieces of Thomas Adès a decade earlier. Kronos has taken “Eye for an Eye” into its repertory, and, in fact, performed it again last week in San Francisco.


The title was Gandhi’s adage. The timing of this composition was the start of coalition forces’ invasion of Iraq. For Du Bois, the dove symbolized the song of dawn. We wake before the sun to build afresh or, if we are soldiers, to prepare for battle. A new morning and age-old mourning conflate. The dove sings with sliding tones, which was the one common element among this concert’s Vietnamese and American music.

In Du Bois’ 17-minute string quartet, those sliding tones returned with double meaning. They heralded lyricism and thick tonal lushness, the sweet dew on the vine, so to speak. They also revealed anger: In the middle there is an Ivesian uproar, Americana turned ugly and mean but resolving into hymnal peace and a return to nature.

At the other end of the spectrum Saturday was another string quartet by Ton That Tiet that closed the concert. Known most widely for his music that accompanies Tran Anh Hung’s films, including “The Scent of Green Papaya,” Ton is a composer from the central Buddhist city of Hue who settled in Paris in the 1950s. His style is French modernist, but his aesthetic reflects his traditional culture.

“Mémoire de la Rivière,” Tiet writes in his program note, takes its inspiration from the Perfume River, which “bathes the city of Hue.” A liquid electronic soundscape and the singing of a boatman introduce the string quartet. Plucking strings catch the drips, which soon turn into a wash of slipping and sliding. This is an exceptional work. The strong sonic current flows, and a listener has little choice but to follow it. Every turn is a surprise. The landscape is wet, intense and exotic.

From the younger Vietnamese generation came “Trang,” a wild piece for cello, and “Meditation & … ABC,” a wild duo for cello and violin by Vu Nhat Tan. A violin string broke during a furious pizzicato passage, which proved an added dramatic occurrence for dramatic music.

But Nguyen Thien Dao’s “A Mi K Giao Tranh,” an unsettled solo for double bass, was wilder still. It was written in 1975 during the final days of the Vietnam War by a composer who had followed in Ton’s footsteps and immigrated to Paris.

The other young American composer to be part of the cultural exchange, Kurt Rohde, was represented by a brief score for string quartet and bass clarinet, “Under the Influence,” edgy, nervous, engaging music.

Music heard in the Armory doesn’t have far to go as it bounces off walls and art and hits listeners. The players have no cushion and needed none here. The Southwest string quartet (violinists Lorenz Gamma and Shalini Vijayan, violist Jan Karlin and cellist Peter Jacobson) was a vital, alert ensemble. The lower-range players, bassist Tom Peters and bass clarinetist Jim Foschia, were standouts.

The dragon ascends a little farther Monday, when the next program will be at the Colburn School. The players travel to Vietnam the next day, and the U.S. concerts resume in mid-April.

-- Mark Swed

Ascending Dragon Music Festival, Southwest Chamber Music, Zipper Concert Hall, the Colburn School, 200 S. Grand Ave., 8 p.m. Monday. $10-$38. Information: 800-726-7147 or

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American musicians bond with Vietnamese counterparts