Ho Ho Ho Chi Minh: Southwest Chamber Music begins its Vietnam visit

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HANOI -- Vietnam’s capital flows. Life here is led largely out of doors amid the chaotic motorbike traffic. But unperturbed pedestrians calmly weave in and out, finding the groove. Not put off by the buzzing and honking, people peacefully sit on the sidewalks and eat, get a morning shave or have their shoes shined.

On Tuesday, Southwest Chamber Music, the intrepid new-music ensemble based in Pasadena, dramatically entered Hanoi’s current with a cultural exchange more ambitious than any before between the United States and this dynamic, incongruous country. In a setting once unimaginable, a press conference was held Thursday afternoon at the Vietnam National Academy of Music. American and Vietnamese musicians, administrators and politicians sat under a photograph of Ho Chi Minh conducting an orchestra. With baton waved high, the founder of the Democratic Republic of Vietnam that was once target of U.S. bombs, turns to face the camera. Behind him is a dapper, beaming, white-suited orchestra of Vietnamese musicians.

The press conference was polite and respectful. The room overflowed with local print and television journalists who had been given a small sum to attend -- a customary courtesy rather like our tipping a cab driver. The event concluded the first day of public events in Hanoi of the Ascending Dragon Music Festival.

The brainchild of Southwest Chamber Music and financed by the State Department, the Ascending Dragon Music Festival celebrates not only the 1,000th anniversary of the founding of Hanoi but also the somewhat shorter (15th) anniversary of the normalization of relations between the U.S. and Vietnam. Southwest’s artistic director, Jeff von der Schmidt, said at the press conference that he hoped Ascending Dragon would initiate a reassessment of Vietnam’s relationships between its former occupier France and the United States by considering the music of an assortment of American, French and Vietnamese composers.


Those now are forgiven, if not altogether forgotten, wars. And the academy’s director, Ngo Van Thanh, mentioned another need. He wanted a few pointers on how to promote a new concert hall that his institution was building. Not that Americans couldn’t learn a thing or two about this hall. It has been completely funded by the Vietnamese government, as is the academy itself. The building, recently begun and thus far being constructed craftsman-like with minimal machinery, is promised to be finished by the end of the year.

The Vietnamese have other things to show us as well. In long, formal remarks, Nguyen Hai Anh, from the Ministry of Culture, Sports and Tourism, announced his agency’s intention to create a center for Vietnamese culture in the United States. New York and Washington are the likely candidates.

As for the music, Ascending Dragon should benefit both countries. The heart of the festival is the pairing of young American (Alexandra du Bois and Kurt Rohde) and Vietnamese (Vu Nhat Tan and Pham Minh Thanh) composers. All have been commissioned to write pieces for Friday’s concert at the 99-year-old Hanoi Opera House, which was built by the French. But the selection of works of two Vietnamese composers who immigrated to Paris in the 1950s is also news. Nguyen Thien Dao and Ton That Tiet are little performed in their home country and virtually unknown in the States.

Education will also play a role in the festival, given that young Vietnamese musicians will join in with the Southwest players for works by Copland, Elliott Carter and John Cage, the three Cs of American new music.

Thursday began with a repeat of the festival’s opening concert in Pasadena two weeks ago. The morning concert was the first of four to be given in Hanoi this week and next (and also to be presented in Ho Chi Minh City).

It opened with Du Bois’ affecting anti-war string quartet “An Eye for an Eye Makes the Whole World Blind.” Several in the academy’s 300-seat concert hall were children. A sign instructed them not to chew gum, and they looked like kids anywhere, sporting logos such as D&G, Adidas and Puma. Some listened on the edge of their seats, some acted bored, some snoozed. Not surprisingly, most -- young or old -- did not remain for the full two hours of difficult new music played without intermission.

I had felt that at the first U.S. concert, the Vietnamese pieces fit well in an American setting of Robert Rauschenberg’s L.A. prints at Pasadena ‘s Armory. This time, the birdsong at the opening of Du Bois’ quartet sounded as though it might have been written for the traditional instruments taught right at the academy. Sound from the hallway and street beyond leaked in during that opening; the lark had a habitat.

More rehearsals might have helped, particularly in Tiet’s memorable “Mémoire de la Rivière,” a mindful evocation of nature. But context meant even more with Nguyen’s “A Mi K Gio Tranh” (roughly translated as “Friendship and War”). The yin and yang of the double bass solo written in 1975 at the end of the American war in Vietnam are hysteria and tranquility. The Hanoi street knows that very well. So, apparently, does Nguyen. The volatile composer, who divides his time between Hanoi and Paris, abandoned the festival when he suddenly left town Wednesday. He missed a terrific performance by Tom Peters.

-- Mark Swed


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