Critic’s Notebook: Musical détente at Hanoi Opera House

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HANOI -- This year marks the 15th anniversary of diplomatic relations between the United States and Vietnam. The country is still a tender land, but the Vietnamese have long known how to profit from their various invaders over the past millennium.

American tourists, for instance, are now targets for hawkers of Viet Cong souvenirs around Hanoi’s Opera House. The theater is a scaled-down model of the Paris Opera’s Palais Garnier, and it was thus a glaring symbol of colonialism until the French were overthrown in 1954 and Ho Chi Minh made it a historic site for important political occasions, even if music and dance remain its main business.


On Friday night, though, the hall saw a different détente. American and Vietnamese musicians joined together to premiere new works by young composers from both countries and one by Elliott Carter, who is 101 and was born two years before the 600-seat Opera House was completed.

Aaron Copland’s “Appalachian Spring,” perhaps the most touching musical depiction of America as a tender land, closed the program and proved a moving culmination of two weeks of the Ascending Dragon Music Festival here, a cultural exchange between Southwest Chamber Music and the Vietnam National Academy of Music.

By concert time, the players might have gotten to speak a little something of each other’s musical language, but the composers, needing to have finished their pieces before arriving, had no such advantage. The Americans, Alexandra du Bois and Kurt Rohde, came as somewhat cautious representatives of a country that four decades ago was bombing this region. Now they were visiting thanks to U.S. State Department support. As if in a gesture of camaraderie, they included the dan bau in their ensembles, although both spoke about the difficulty of finding players in the States from whom they might get hands-on experience of this one-stringed traditional Vietnamese instrument.

Vu Nhat Tan and Pham Minh Thanh, on the other hand, were familiar with the dan bau -- which can sound either haunting or, when prominently amplified, like a sexed-up Hawaiian guitar – and were actually Copland-like, secure in their nationalist styles.

But these are broad generalizations. Ultimately, the four composers were all unalike -- although all said they had international outlooks and were happy to appropriate aspects of world music as they wished.

Du Bois’ large ensemble piece, “With Earth, Wind Grows,” was, at 15 minutes, the longest and also the most ambitious. She has an unerring sense of beauty, and her new score began with the accrual of melody in slow, soft, overlapping layers, the way Mahler did in his most affecting adagios. But also like Mahler, she revealed innocence as always an illusion. In her program notes she spoke of overcoming mental images of Vietnamese afflicted with the results of Agent Orange and of American war veterans wounded in Vietnam or haunted by memories.

Sweetness never left her score, but beauty and pain intermingled. A bass line provided a heartbeat, and beguiling melodic lines led through a maze of dead ends. The ending was a stunner – a scream became a spiritual cadence, as if giving thanks for sour, sensuous fruit.

All week, Tan had been speaking about the noise pollution of Hanoi, which is spectacular. He decries it. Yet, mindful of his environment, he uses it for inspiration.

His new piece, “Pho” (‘Street’), bops. A rhythmic piano tattoo could have been the hipster who never loses his cool on hot pavement. In the middle, a jazzy plucked bass line set off all the players, but their overlapping patterns became gamelan-like and we were reminded that this is Southeast Asia, after all. A final dan bau solo was what Roy Orbison might have sounded like singing in Vietnamese.

Rohde’s “Still Distant, Still Here” has the texture of sonic raw silk. Notes are constantly sliding but not colliding. A big ensemble tremolo set the room a shimmer. Gongs called us to attention.

In Thanh’s “Tang Long” (“Ascending Dragon”), the dan bau was set against temple bells. This is a purposefully melodic piece meant to calm the mind. It does.

And then there was Carter’s “On Conversing with Paradise,” a setting of Ezra Pound (Pisan Canto LXXXI and Canto CXX) for baritone and small ensemble with five (!) percussionists. It was performed just before intermission and, I’m afraid, was responsible for a good portion of the crowd not returning. Evan Hughes sang powerfully, but there was no Vietnamese translation of the Confucius-inspired text and no doubt too little context for Carter’s brilliantly complex modernist language .

The enthusiastic performances were conducted by Southwest’s music director, Jeff von der Schmidt, and not altogether tidy. But then, Hanoi is hardly a tidy city. It is an enthusiastic city. The players will have a chance to clean things up next month when they arrive in Southern California to repeat all these pieces at the Armory in Pasadena and the Colburn School in Los Angeles.

-- Mark Swed

Related stories:

Southwest Chamber Music’s further adventures in Hanoi

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

Music review: Southwest Chamber Music takes on Vietnam

American musicians bond with Vietnamese counterparts