Critic’s Notebook: Southwest Chamber Music hits Saigon

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HO CHI MINH CITY, Vietnam -- In the center of Saigon, as everyone here still refers to Ho Chi Minh City, stands a glossy white opera house, modeled after Milan’s La Scala. It is a gathering place where people sit outside and drink until late in the night. It is also a short walk from the Notre Dame Cathedral.

On Sunday, as the sun was setting and the surrounding palm trees grew golden on a sweaty, tropical evening, a large motor-scooter crowd sat on or stood near their machines in front of the neo-Romanesque cathedral listening to the service over loudspeakers. Ice cream and balloon vendors lent a carnivalesque atmosphere to the plaza.

Inside, a choir sang something modern and Minimalist that sounded almost as if it had been written by the Estonian mystic, Arvo Pärt. A vocal soloist added a Vietnamese accent. An organist flew into wild cadenzas. As the congregation left, an organ recessional merged with a traditional Vietnamese drum-and-gong brigade in a peculiarly glorious melting pot of Baltic and Southeast Asian musics.

Across from the cathedral is Vietnam’s largest post office. Under its magnificent domed ceiling hangs a large portrait of Ho Chi Minh, the country’s most celebrated leader, who also happened to be a patron of the arts.


From all of this you might conclude that this expansive metropolis, which is experiencing dramatic growth and is quickly turning into a major Asian business center, is a city of culture. It isn’t.

Sunday was the day that the Ascending Dragon Music Festival – which originated in Pasadena last month and which is themed to Vietnam’s capital city, Hanoi, on the occasion of its 1,000th anniversary – briefly descended here to the former capital of South Vietnam. Southwest Chamber Music had just concluded a three-week residency in Hanoi at the Vietnam National Academy of Music as the main part of the largest cultural exchange yet between the U.S. and a country so vivid in our national consciousness but so little understood by Americans. It will continue the exchange next month with another three weeks of concerts and workshops in Pasadena and Los Angeles.

The Ho Chi Minh City stopover was an afterthought, something requested by the U.S. State Department, which is underwriting the exchange. It was an afterthought because the arts are such a hard sell in a city where the old Saigon is being pushed aside by tall modern buildings, fancy shops and hordes of international hustlers looking to make a killing.

North and south continue to be culturally divided in Vietnam. Hanoi remains a quintessentially Asian city, a government center where the classical arts, traditional and Western, are honored. Symphony concerts in its opera house are year around, and they typically sell out, whereas symphony concerts are far fewer in the Ho Chi Minh City opera house, with last-minute tickets never a problem. For its Asian tour last fall, the New York Philharmonic performed in Hanoi as its only Vietnam stop.

Pop is what is wanted in the south, and touring rock bands can sell out a 25,000-seat stadium here with ease. Even the underground arts scene, including galleries surreptitiously showing political art, is hotter in Hanoi, perhaps from the frisson of operating under the government’s nose.

Southwest Chamber’s single Ho Chi Minh City concert was in the Conservatory of Music, a satellite of the much larger academy in Hanoi. The conservatory has what is said to be the city’s best concert hall. Its 450-seat, rectangular interior is blandly decorated but the acoustics are excellent.

The audience was scant, consisting principally of musicians from the conservatory and a few guests from the large U.S. consulate based here. Whether this was the result of lack of interest or simply the problem throughout Vietnam of getting the word out was hard to tell. Perhaps the festival title, Ascending Dragon (which is the original name of Hanoi), was off-putting in Ho Chi Minh City. But, unlike the concerts in Hanoi, I didn’t see anyone leave at intermission.

And for good reason. The program was the same one that had opened the Ascending Dragon festival in Pasadena and Hanoi. It featured five string players and a clarinetist from Southwest (unfortunately, none of the Vietnamese musicians who took part in the Hanoi concerts traveled the 1,000 miles south). But with the musicians having had time to work with the young American composers (Alexandra du Bois and Kurt Rohde) who are part of the exchange and to get to know the edgy young Vietnamese composer Vu Nhat Tan, the performances took on new radiance, So did the works by Vietnam’s most important senior composers, the brash Nguyen Thien Dao and pensive Ton That Tiet (both longtime French émigrés).

Rohde’s “Under the Influence,” which had first seemed to me a not entirely coherent clarinet quintet, this time dazzled, thanks in part to Jim Foschia’s jazz-infused bass clarinet solos.

Du Bois’ string quartet, “An Eye for an Eye Makes the Whole World Blind,” had a new luminosity. This astonishing work, written when the composer was in her early 20s, seems deeper with each hearing.

But being in the concert hall Sunday also felt like retreating to an island in Ho Chi Minh City. Afterward, the musicians headed to the rooftop bar of the Caravelle hotel, where journalists used to gather during the American war. It’s now an overpriced, cheesy scene full of middle-aged American and Russian businessmen dancing with scantily clad young Vietnamese women.

Thirty-five years after the fall of Saigon, this town is definitely on the rise. Now all it needs is a little culture.

-- Mark Swed

Ascending Dragon Music Festival, Southwest Chamber Music, Armory Center for the Arts and the Colburn School. Five performances between April 16 and May 3; (800) 726-7147 or

Related stories:

Musical détente at Hanoi Opera House

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