Anthony Bourdain, Ascending Dragon, Asia, Hanoi, Hanoi Philharmonic Orchestra, Kim Ngoc Tran, LA International New Music Festival, Leonard Bernstein, Nguyen Thien Dao, Pham Minh Thanh, Song Hong Ensemble of Hanoi, Southwest Chamber Music, Tanglewood, Ton That Tiet, Vietnam, Vu Nhat Tan
Jan and I are thrilled, honored, and excited to begin a new adventure this October, one which I am happy to share with all my blog readers around the world.
Soon after my last post about our Los Angeles International New Music Festival at REDCAT in Walt Disney Concert Hall, an official invitation arrived from Dr. Lê Anh Tuấn, Deputy Rector of the Việt Nam National Academy of Music in Hà Nội. Dr. Tuan was inviting us to serve as Artistic Advisors to the Hà Nội Philharmonic Orchestra and play a key role in the founding of the Hà Nội New Music Ensemble.
Our answer? An obvious and immediate YES, YES, YES!
This moment is a big breakthrough, the definition of an icebreaker. The Vietnamese have never entered into a formal relationship with American musicians in the capacity our invitation outlines, and the reasons because of the Việt Nam War are obvious. But things can and do change.
We’re excited and, if you’ve been reading my blog, you’ll know that we’ve observed Việt Nam approaching a tipping point towards international excellence. Because the infrastructure, the musicians and, most importantly the composers, are now ready to plan next steps on the international stage. And Jan and I will do our best to help!
Music, serious new classical music, truly can be an international language.
The idea of a formal role for us in Hanoi has been under discussion since our trip in 2013, which was our first visit since producing the Ascending Dragon Festival and Cultural Exchange for the U.S. State Department. Good things take time for relationships to form and ideas to be shared across very different administrative systems.
A series of developments have combined to dramatically change the face of arts venues in Hà Nội, making this a very exciting moment in time. The preceding photo of the Hà Nội Philharmonic Orchestra was taken just this year as a brand new concert hall was completed and opened at the Việt Nam National Academy of Music.
New halls are always auspicious times for new ideas!
I have always said I like a good story, and Việt Nam’s is one of the best.
With the wars of the 20th century finally in the rearview mirror, there is exciting opportunity for reconnecting the Vietnamese new music community both abroad and at home. Yes, there is a lot of hard work ahead, but by having a formal position we are confident that plans will be made this October for a bright future.
The initial discussions have put forward the idea of drawing the Hà Nội New Music Ensemble out of the Hà Nội Philharmonic Orchestra, so we have the dual possibilities of improving the repertory of the orchestra while serving new music with a dedicated ensemble. Jan and I believe the two need to work together to make genuine artistic progress on multiple fronts. The Vietnamese are not strangers to long term strategy, as Paris and Washington learned the hard way, so long range planning is on our agenda for our October trip.
Another piece of significant infrastructure that has come into place is a new performing arts space in the legendary, intoxicating urban core of Hà Nội’s magical Old Quarter.
A joint project sponsored by my friend Geir Johnson of Norway’s Ultima Project and a team of French architects from Toulouse, welcome to the brand new Hà Nội Old Quarter Cultural Center. Obviously the timing is right to dedicate Vietnamese musicians to a serious new music focus with eventual international ambitions.
This space will prove a wonderful and desirable central spot for highlighting new and interesting work. My friend, composer Vũ Nhật Tân, is producing a series of Vietnamese Original Traditional Music right now in the space, so if you are in Hà Nội, check it out.
The French embers of colonial domination of Việt Nam, Cambodia and Laos are physically still visible throughout these Southeast Asian countries. But transformation is part of change, and history cannot be undone. But just as French architects contributed to this new Old Quarter performing space, so another experimental cafe, art gallery and performing space can be found above the Old Quarter. MANZI is picking up a lot of notice for its cutting edge offerings, in a brilliantly restored French era villa.
These new spaces now join the venerable French era Hà Nội Opera House, providing Hà Nội with world class venues allowing for a wide spectrum of performances in the future. Opened in 1911 and modeled after the Palais Garnier in Paris, the Hà Nội Opera House has jewel box acoustics, as I remember past performances I’ve conducted there in 2006 and 2010 fondly. Stiching these venues into a cohesive forum for new music is an exciting possibility for us to explore over the next few years.
So you’ve got an idea of the performing arts infrastructure in Hà Nội that encourages our appointments as Artistic Advisors to the Hà Nội Philharmonic Orchestra and the Hà Nội New Music Ensemble.
But venues need musicians!
Jan and I are already well known to many of the Hà Nội players based on our tours with Southwest Chamber Music in 2006 and our 6 week State Department exchange in 2010. I’ve written in earlier blogs that I knowingly worked everybody hard with the repertory for the State Department project, because one only gets one chance to make a first impression. Now I am glad I planted a lot of ideas!
Clues of next steps were what the 2010 programming was all about. New music. Stravinsky and Schoenberg and Debussy and Messiaen. America’s Three C’s, Copland, Cage and Carter, and I am proud I met all three of them. And of course new work by Americans Kurt Rohde and Alexandra du Bois and Vietnamese Vũ Nhật Tân and Phạm Minh Thanh as well as a hefty dose of requests by expatriate Vietnamese composers Nguyễn Thiên Đạo and Tốn Thất Tiết, who both live in Paris.
Social media is a wonderful tool when used with good intent. Jan and I have stayed in touch with all of our Vietnamese friends we’ve made since 2006 (I often think my Facebook account is only in Vietnamese!) so our new role is not a surprise but rather a development in a relationship that is now a decade old.
But infrastructure and players are still not the entire picture. 28 years of experience has taught us that there needs to be a strong reason to motivate the performing arts in any city or country. In Vienna, for example, one cannot escape the past, just as Paris spins its magic on the whole world from the Belle Époque and Impressionism (which like any new form was held up for derision when it launched). Being based in Los Angeles, we’ve played more Cage and Schoenberg than anybody in town.
Without a serious new music potential, Việt Nam wouldn’t be that interesting to us compared to our musical lives in Los Angeles. But with the 20th century gladly resolved, I am happy to give you a flavor of five Vietnamese composers all deserving of your attention, and I am sure to meet others. They collectively have a lot to do with our accepting Dr. Tuấn’s invitation.
But to talk about clues, take a second look at the captions following the composers above. You’ll notice students of Olivier Messiaen and Karlheinz Stockhausen, and that’s across generations. Giant influences to be sure, anywhere on the globe.
And this is where Jan and I do truly come into the picture in Hanoi.
While the Sông Hồng Ensemble was in Los Angeles last April of 2014, Jan had a working session opening up the discussion about how to practice and rehearse the challenging vocabulary of a patriarch of Vietnamese new music, composer Tốn Thất Tiết. Think Messiaen, Boulez or Xenakis but in Vietnamese and you’ll get the idea of the challenges these players face.
The Vietnamese have what I would describe as jet lag when it comes to repertory. They’ve arrived in the 21st century but don’t know musically how they got here. The violent 20th century rupture of their country created understandable musical gaps. In other words, I’ll be in a position to encourage a LOT of Vietnamese premieres from what we take for granted from 20th century repertory and which will improve their abilities with their own new music tremendously. And that’s why the orchestra and new music ensemble in Hà Nội will benefit from a unified vision.
I always said I like a good story, and in a blog to come soon I’ll take up this narrative and connect a lot of dots, all around the globe, rest assured.
But our appointment represents a deepening of relations between Việt Nam and the United States that has been under way for a long time. Jan and I have had enough meetings at our Embassy in Hà Nội and in Washington to get a sense of our diplomatic direction. We understand that the nature of timing is key when dealing with very different ways of doing things.
President Obama recently met in the Oval Office with Nguyễn Phú Trọng, the General Secretary of Việt Nam. It seems likely that our President will include Việt Nam in a subsequent trip to Asia as we celebrate 20 years of normalized relations since the end of the Việt Nam War. This is significant, that’s for sure.
And because of our work producing Ascending Dragon for Secretary Clinton’s State Department, we have a good knowledge of the diplomacy already very much in evidence between Hà Nội and Washington. Secretary John Kerry was in Hà Nội discussing increased ties between the United States and Việt Nam, and perhaps not by coincidence, it was the week we received our invitations.
Pictures are indeed worth 1,000 words. I’m happy to now share a treasued photo from our State Department project with Việt Nam. We had the great opportunity in 2009 to discuss Ascending Dragon with Valerie Jarrett, the Senior Advisor to President Obama. Her encouragement about our work was meaningful and she helped us learn of a much bigger diplomatic picture going far beyond our concerts. With confidence I can say that our invitation from Hà Nội will be music to a lot of ears in Washington, and that’s going to be a good thing as our work in Hà Nội moves forward.
Nations, by definition, reconcile with former enemies. This process is long and difficult. So it’s a good thing French architects now worked on the new cultural center in Old Hà Nội, as the Vietnamese are as equally tied to France as you can most likely find a shop serving pho soup in your American neighborhood. And it has been 50 years since the end of our Việt Nam War, what President Obama described this April as “one of the most tragic events in our history.”
Jan and I met in 1979 at Tanglewood, the summer home of the Boston Symphony. Because of many great American musicians inspired by Serge Koussevitsky, this Berkshire Hills center in Western Massachusetts is for us the heart of American music. We had the memorable experience, concerts that still ring in our ears, of performing there with Leonard Bernstein, Seiji Ozawa, Colin Davis, Gunther Schuller, André Previn and many others.
In the midst of the turbulence of the 1960s, the Civil Rights Movement, the Vietnam War, the assassinations of Medgar Evers, two Kennedy brothers and a King, all the volatile backdrop to our teenage years, it was Bernstein who conducted many a funeral service, including the string orchestra Adagietto from Mahler’s 5th Symphony for Robert F. Kennedy, a staunch opponent of the Việt Nam War. We keep Bernstein’s words of encouragement from those dark times in our hearts, and use them as inspiration for verbally describing our love of music:
This will be our reply to violence: to make music more intensely, more beautifully, more devotedly than every before.
Thanks, Maestro Bernstein, for providing an answer to those bewildering times and giving us our motto as we start a hopeful new chapter making music in Việt Nam.
Bridges are great physical symbols of connection. As Americans from the East and West Coasts, Jan and I set our internal compasses with the Brooklyn Bridge in New York City and the Golden Gate Bridge in San Francisco.
In Hà Nội, the Long Biên Bridge might contain the history of Vietnam in one place. Built by Gustave Eiffel in 1902 (you’ve heard of his tower in Paris), Long Biên connects Hà Nội to the sea and the port city of Hải Phòng. It was at the time the longest bridge in all Asia and a towering achievement. We dropped the first “smart” bomb on the bridge during the Việt Nam War, but didn’t expect the Vietnamese to constantly reconstruct this vital connection. Today, it’s a popular spot for wedding photos and a symbol of national resilience, a subject the Vietnamese define for the whole world.
You don’t have to go looking for great food in Việt Nam. Great food finds you. It’s everywhere. In restaurants, cafes, little storefronts, in the streets carried by makeshift portable kitchens on yokes borne by women vendors. Anthony Bourdain
As you know from following my blog, food will undoubtedly play a role in future stories!
After pushing send on various announcements and press releases about our new roles as Artistic Advisors to the Hà Nội Philharmonic Orchestra and the Hà Nội New Music Ensemble, we will be celebrating tonight by making a Vietnamese dinner with our best California version of Hà Nội Chả Cá, a fish dish flavored with huge amounts of turmeric, dill and scallions, served with rice noodles and the acquired taste of pungent shrimp paste sauce with hot bird chilies (living in the San Gabriel Valley we have all Asia close by in numerous markets). We’ll enjoy the best coffee in the world from Cộng Cà Phê, and polish the evening off with the amazing Sơn Tính liqueurs from Highway Four restaurant in Hà Nội (think about the most exotic smoky taste of herbs and you’ll have an idea of the taste, Vietnamese armagnac would be a great description). Who needs Paris?
So until my next post, I’ll leave you with another photo of Phở Sương, or Happy Noodle, which began this post in the magical atmosphere of Hà Nội’s Old Quarter. Before we leave we will be busy making all the arrangements necessary to travel for an extended time to Southeast Asia, deciding an energetic Hà Nội agenda for this October/November with concert programs, rehearsal schedules, long range planning meetings and chamber music coaching sessions, while of course dreaming about soon enjoying again one of the greatest cuisines on Planet Earth.
And to all our friends in Việt Nam, Jan and I are ready to do our best and will see you very soon!
Best, best, best,