Betty Freeman, Bruce Weigl, Claude Debussy, Elliott Carter, Emperor Bao Dai, Hanoi, Igor Stravinsky, LA International New Music Festival, Leonard Bernstein, Los Angeles, Mark Swed, Paris, Song Hong Ensemble of Hanoi, Ton That Tiet, Venice Beach Walkway, Vu Nhat Tan, Walt Disney Concert Hall
I’ve always thought of Los Angeles as the New Vienna of classical music. Because if you care about the 20th century story of classical music, the chapters about LA are page turners.
Arnold Schoenberg and Igor Stravinsky for monumental starters. Martha Graham is from Santa Barbara cutting her teeth here as a young woman. John Cage is born here in 1912 (and Merce Cunningham dances in the world premiere of Appalachian Spring, which was composed mostly when Copland was at MGM). Erich Wolfgang Korngold establishes the film score and let’s be culturally honest and admit that movies have had an influence on the world. Pierre Boulez conducts his American debut at the Monday Evening Concerts, the oldest continuing series of new music in the world. And the LA Philharmonic’s Minimalist Jukebox Festival this season proves that a big institution can move forward.
And God bless Betty Freeman, who commissioned everybody and took pictures of them all (mine with Elliott Carter and Oliver Knussen are great lifetime memories). Driving past Hillcrest Dr. in Beverly Hills where she lived, just up the road from where I grew up in West Hollywood, never feels the same anymore……
So if you are down in the dumps about classical music’s greatest tradition – that it’s dying – then you might want to take a good look at activity in Los Angeles. Or maybe for starters just pay attention to the blending of Walt Disney and classical music (anyone remember Fantasia?) with Frank Gehry’s now indelible image for Los Angeles. Yes, it’s worth the visit…..
And speaking about being worth a visit. My friends from Vietnam also came to LA for coaching sessions with Martin Chalifour, the concertmaster of the Los Angeles Philharmonic (so the photo above is not staged but genuine) and for more rehearsals and a concert under the auspices of Il Palpitti’s director Eduard Schmieder.
The repertoire for those sessions was tried and true. Schubert, Schumann, Shostakovich and Rachmaninoff (who died here in Beverly Hills). Their end of the week performance was internationally credible and a historic milestone for Vietnam. They are the FIRST chamber ensemble to play in the United States. Auspicious decision to make the debut here in Los Angeles.
Of course Jan and I direct the LA International New Music Festival, a result of 25 years of new music work with Southwest Chamber Music, a festival described as “indispensable” by Mark Swed of the Los Angeles Times. So we have next step ideas for Song Hong. I like a good story, and now this one is going to get more interesting.
This Venice Beach photo is a flashback to 2012 and a pre-echo of things to come (we took Song Hong to Venice Beach on Easter Sunday, but that’s my next blog). Mark Swed of the Los Angeles Times got it right in 2010 when he said that composer Vu Nhat Tan is on the verge of major international recognition. I’ve known him and respected his music and ideas since 2006, almost a full decade. He was composer-in-residence for my first festival in 2012, bringing his powerful The Song of Napalm to us for its world premiere, set to poems of Vietnam War Vet and poet Bruce Weigl. The work was commissioned by Arnold Schoenberg’s grandson Randy, who is on my board, a nice continuity for us here in Los Angeles. Weigl is who you’ve been looking for, the Wilfred Owen of the Vietnam War. The Song of Napalm is a tremendous, gut wrenching work that brought the house down.
My advocacy and support of Tan comes out of a personally influential conversation I had with him in 2009 in Hanoi planning Ascending Dragon. He had done what all young composers do with performers from out of town. He came by my hotel in Hanoi in 2006 and left a big envelope with his music, hoping for the best. When I went back to reconnect in 2009 for the U.S. State Department, he was the first composer I wanted to see. But he was down and it was simple to understand why. No one could or would play his music, things were that conservative. Could I help?
I thought in that conversation of my promise to Loi Trinh Le, my acupuncturist who opened up Vietnam to both Jan and me. She’d asked me to try to make something wonderful happen in the wake of the Vietnam War (check out my second blog from September 2013). Here I was, with Uncle Sam (via Aunt Hillary) putting together the biggest to-do between our countries in history.
Time for a quick scene change……I never said dealing with Vietnam was easy…….
I know that a blog is not a book, so trust me when I say I’m writing one about these subjects, so I’ll be brief now. History is complicated and has many perspectives. My father-in-law’s description of divorce holds true for history as well. There’s his side, her side, and the truth.
Jan and I were not even aware that this small Paris cemetery by the Guimet Museum had the historic final resting place of Vietnam’s last monarch. We just happened to see the gravestone as we were leaving, though I don’t think it was by chance.
Here’s why we were there….
Jan and I wanted to pay our respects to Claude Debussy. One of my top three favorite composers (the other two are Webern and Monteverdi) and for Jan, the impact of her love for Debussy is indelible. She was at Tanglewood in 1978, the year before we met. Leonard Bernstein had lost his wife Felicia that year. He was grief and guilt stricken, and decided to end his mourning period with the Berkshire Music Center Orchestra at Tanglewood (I cant’ even imagine the atmosphere of shiva at Bernstein’s apartment…..).
Debussy’s La Mer was part of that emotional program, which also included the Leonora Overture, No. 3 by Beethoven and the Symphony No. 2 in C major by Schumann. But it was La Mer that brought out a true tsunami wave from Bernstein’s soul. And God bless Mark Swed of the Los Angeles Times. When he shared with us in conversation (in Hanoi by the way) he’d been at that special Bernstein concert, he confirmed that what she felt onstage was also in the audience. Being part of a great moment of a great career is unforgettable. Under those grief stricken circumstances, Bernstein was beyond inspired churning up Debussy’s ocean. Jan remembers him looking at the orchestra and saying “You know what sound I want. Just give it to me.” How a performance can change your life…..
And let’s kindly say the Vietnamese had a historically traumatic relationship with France. But even Uncle Ho, who had cooked with L’Escoffier (there’s food again…), thought the classical music of Europe was no problem at all and very beautiful. French music is part of Vietnam’s history with classical music. At least you hear a lot of Chopin around the Conservatory (I think of him as a French composer, even though he hails from Warsaw. Nothing is that easy in life…..).
Back to Paris. Vietnam has a Lion in Winter expatriate in France, composer Ton That Tiet. His music is the most patient in the world. What Takemitsu is to Japan, Tiet is to Vietnam. Thank God I’ve studied Buddhism or his music would feel at times like water torture. He is not in a hurry, that’s for sure….
You have to do your homework if you want to change a cultural calculus decades in the making. And in defiance of a French subway workers strike (what else is new?) Tiet and his wife arrived at a cafe close to IRCAM in the Marais to talk face to face. They wanted to hear of our work in Hanoi and Saigon and Los Angeles, receive eye-witness accounts of the scene and share their hopes for a better musical future in Vietnam. We have, d’accord, continued our correspondence.
Composers need musicians or the notes just remain on the page, unheard and vanished from their cultural context. You can probably see where this is headed. Ton That Tiet has composed a lot of chamber music, string quartets, trios, duos, ensemble pieces, that are waiting for advocates who are Vietnamese. Watch out for an old Buddhist composer who meditates daily! Vu Nhat Tan’s father is a great friend of Tiet before the wars and his son needs players as well. There’s a lot of energy coming together as these generations connect. We are setting catalysts in motion for important shifts in the next decade, rest assured (thanks again to Aunt Hillary Clinton). Long distance meditation between Los Angeles, Hanoi and Paris is highly advised……and working out really well, I’d say.
Scene change back to Pasadena CA last week…..
We’ve built up trust over a long time in Hanoi and this photo is the musical payoff image. Here’s what took place that morning.
All the Song Hong players know they need to remove a huge blindspot from their repertoire. I spent our welcoming dinner talking about the strategy of the Cuarteto Latino Americano of Mexico, good friends of our friend Gabriela Ortiz. A clear mission for international performance – take your own music from Vietnam, eventually add in other Southeast Asian countries, East Asia as well and make a reputation. That’s where we come in to help, too. I love Schubert, but wouldn’t recommend Vietnamese putting him on anybody’s tour repertoire for concerts in Vienna…….
Jan went to work. She spent hours discussing how to approach a major work of Ton That Tiet that was on everybody’s music stand. Step by step by step by step, how to prepare before the first rehearsal of a new work, that you need to learn your music without your instrument first, start with singing and tapping only the rhythm, then once rhythmically secure add pitches, that the score needs complete study, that if you are making mistakes you are doing something wrong with the tempo. What slow practice means and what the results will be if it is understood (it’s a lot like cooking…..) Ideas that were brand new to Song Hong but immediately coherent to them. And as Oliver Knussen wisely taught us, when you’re doing a new piece that is a brain challenge (and they all are…) take a break every 40 to 50 minutes without exception. With a new Carter work play it safe and make that 40 minutes tops!
The energy from them just poured out into the room when I returned with sandwiches for a quick lunch. The light had switched on for the future. And their concert of Schubert and Schumann for the Il Palpitti series was better for the new thoughts! For us a memorable evening and a great, great first step for them and Vietnam. Bravo!
Hearing them play Schumann and Schubert (Death and the Maiden) gave both Jan and me many many ideas for their next steps. The era of social media makes communication so much easier, that I’m sure our ideas will be taking shape soon and in many new and exciting ways. As far as new music in Vietnam is concerned, The Dragon Awakes……………..
It doesn’t hurt that they are a great mix of players and personalities, able to think big when they need to and able to understand what they need to do over the next few years to change things. Peter Drucker was always right. To do something new, you have to stop doing something old…..so a few new music only concerts are on the way.
Here’s hoping you enjoy our extended family photo between Vietnam and California after Song Hong’s first, and by no means last, concert in the United States.
It’s funny how people in life self identify. Violinst Phan Thi To Trinh kept in good touch via email and Facebook after Ascending Dragon. Those little steps lead to big accomplishments. Walter Trampler had urged Jan as a young student to stay in touch with people. She talks to a Southwest board member every week (free administrative tip for non-profit executive directors). Doing new music IS scary and needs a lot of trust on stage. To Trinh’s Schubert playing had us smiling ear to ear. Something about those days she spent in Salzburg come out of her violin. She and her colleagues are ready for the big next steps. Which means the technical equipment is there for any challenge. So they can put planning a trip to Paris to work with Master Tiet on their to-do list.
Here’s to making a difference!
Vietnam was the proxy battleground in the 20th century for France, Japan, the United States, Mao’s People’s Republic of China and Khruschev’s Soviet Union. Everybody always has wanted a piece of their coastline.
These musicians have a lot to say about what happened in their country. It’s time more of us started paying attention internationally. Until then, thanks for keeping me busy!
More posts are on the way so keep checking back. It’s time to celebrate on the Venice Beach Walkway on Easter Sunday, though unlike Vu Nhat Tan in 2012 we didn’t get a picture with The Walkway Legend, Harry Perry!
Best, best, best,