O.C. Composer Speaks From the Heart in ‘1975’


When the Pacific Symphony decided to commemorate the human suffering inflicted by the Vietnam War, the orchestra commissioned a composer whose specialty is movie soundtracks. The hoopla heralding the premiere in April was befitting of a Hollywood opening, although classical-music critics generally said the piece played like a B movie.

That commission came about two years ago.

Khoa Le--author, producer, photojournalist and a leader in the Vietnamese community here--was named to an advisory board formed to raise his community’s awareness of the work and served as a musical consultant to the New York-based composer, Elliot Goldenthal. Meanwhile, at the behest of no one but himself, Le, who also is a composer, was already writing his own commemorative piece, “1975.”

The Pacific Symphony performed Goldenthal’s “Fire Water Paper” in late April at the Orange County Performing Arts Center. The orchestra recorded the work for projected fall release on the Sony Classical label, with a featured appearance by superstar cellist Yo-Yo Ma.


Excerpts of Le’s “1975” will be performed today by the Pacific Symphony Institute Orchestra in a free concert, also at the center.

Why was Goldenthal’s work performed by a professional orchestra, and Le’s by a training orchestra? Why only excerpts? And why was Le merely an adviser?

“I think they did not even know any Vietnamese composer lived in this area,” said Le, 61, who lives in Orange. “They found out last year,” long after the commission had been given to Goldenthal. “Too late!”

Commenting on the fact that the orchestra will perform only three of the seven movements he has completed--Introduction, “Full Moon Festival” and “In the Depths of the Night” on a program that also includes Beethoven’s Egmont Overture and Mahler’s Symphony No. 1--Le said, “Maybe, you know, I’m new to them, so they hesitate. But [Institute Orchestra conductor Edward Cumming], after he studied the score, he got very excited.

“Of course, there are many things involved with that,” he said. “Sponsors are one. The problem is that we do not have enough money” to support rehearsals and performances of the entire piece.

As far as the student orchestra goes, the performance of Le’s work is funded not by the Pacific Symphony but by Project 20, a committee of local Vietnamese Americans who have organized numerous cultural events and educational activities marking 20 years of life in the United States for Vietnamese refugees and emigres. Le is production coordinator for Project 20.


Said Pacific Symphony executive director Lou Spisto: “The Pacific Symphony set out to do a memorial to war from a universal perspective, and we began that project several years ago.


“This [newer] project was instigated by the Vietnamese community here in Orange County. Khoa Le had heard the Institute Orchestra and came to us a few months ago with the notion of utilizing the orchestra as part of Project 20.

“We came to them for assistance with our project; they came to us for assistance with their project,” Spisto said. “It’s a wonderful handshake.”

Musically speaking, the projects couldn’t be more different.

“Most of the themes used in ‘1975’ are Vietnamese traditional music and folk songs based on a pentatonic scale,” Le said. His work, for instance, calls for a soloist playing the single-stringed instrument known as dan doc huyen . “The other difference [is that ‘Fire Water Paper’] is an oratorio with big choruses. . . .

“My piece is aimed at writing history without words,” he said. “Many people have written the story in the form of books, poems, stories, art--they even do movies,” he said. “Now I am trying to do something in music. I don’t think many people attempt to re-create history without words--that is a big challenge.”

According to Le, he and Goldenthal met from time to time during the preparation of “Fire Water Paper,” so that the American composer “could learn something from Vietnamese traditional music.” For whatever reason, little of such music found its way into “Fire Water Paper”--certainly less than what Goldenthal had long indicated he would try to incorporate.

“Many people mentioned to me that they a little bit regret that [Goldenthal] did not use enough of the Vietnamese music,” Le said. “They followed his progress, they followed the workshop and discussion, then they said not much Oriental music was [apparent in] that piece. That is too bad.”


But Le also found strengths in the work.

“The strongest point of ‘Fire Water Paper’ is to bring up the feelings of the people,” he said, “those things we all--American, Vietnamese or any other nationality--have in common. We have in common pain in the heart. If we are able to speak out, to express it, it releases the pain somewhat.”

Le adopts a more narrative stance in “1975”:

“I re-create that we have peacetime, the people living in prosperity. Then war comes, tragedy comes with destruction, people scatter, run for their lives, out of their country. . . . That is the tragedy of the Vietnamese people,” Le said. “I am one among them.

“In the other movements, the people get out by boat, they perish on the high seas to typhoon and pirates. But they perish with the hope of again [finding] a better life for the living, prosperity and peace. The last movement I intend to have the choir step in. I want to have a voice of jubilation, a human voice, but only in the finale. I will write the words myself.”

In Vietnam, Le produced several television programs, the most popular of which was “The Children’s World,” on which he played Brother Khoa, a character as beloved there as Mister Rogers is here. He also has written many books on children’s education.

Since arriving in the United States in 1975, he has appeared in Louis Malle’s film “Alamo Bay,” about a conflict between Vietnamese immigrants and American fishermen. His photographs hang in the Baltimore Museum of Art.

Le began writing “1975” in 1992. Most of the music, save the unwritten finale, was completed in December; Le plans to finish the final movement by July and has scheduled a performance of that movement in La Mirada in September.


Three movements here, a finale there?


“We would like very much to have it done complete,” Le said. “But I do not have any money at all. I run Project 20 for many months with minimal pay, so I cannot afford to do many things I would like to see done. If some people sponsor, then the whole piece will be performed.

“This year would be superb because it is the commemoration, exactly 20 years, of Vietnamese people living in the U.S.A.,” he said. “If it cannot be done, then next year.”

* The Pacific Symphony Institute Orchestra performs excerpts from Khoa Le’s “1975,” plus works by Beethoven and Mahler, today at the Orange County Performing Arts Center, 600 Town Center Drive, Costa Mesa. Curtain, 3 p.m. Free. (714) 755-5799.