Cong Caphe, Dang Hong Anh, Dang Huu Phuc, Do Nhuan, Hanoi, Hanoi New Music Ensemble, Kimngoc Tran, LA International New Music Festival, Nguyen Minh Nhat, Song Hong Ensemble of Hanoi, Vietnam, Vu Nhat Tan
The world had better get ready for the Hà Nội New Music Ensemble!
I’ve had a busy autumn schedule in Asia, with meetings in Singapore, Malaysia, Hong Kong and Japan, all surrounding activities in Việt Nam and discussing the exciting inaugural concerts of the Hà Nội New Music Ensemble. There are quite a few blog posts on the way about this important new group I am privileged to conduct, so I’m going to begin with a general introduction to the ensemble’s auspicious launch in October.
What is most inspiring about my work as artistic advisor to this new group is that Hà Nội has a combination of essential ingredients in place needed to build on the success of our opening concerts. There are composers, musicians, and venues all working in sync with each other. We’ve identified a leadership structure and ended with a planning retreat in the spectacular northern mountain retreat of Sapa, close to the border with China. Next steps are under way!
There were important endorsements from Ambassador Ted Osius and the entire staff of the U.S Embassy in Hà Nội, which spoke loud and clear about the improving relationships between former enemies. The Ambassador attended the opening concert and addressed the audience. At the Embassy’s suggestion our roles as American advisors with the Vietnamese were part of the Daniel Pearl World Music Days, an important topic I’ll discuss in a later post. The Ambassador also hosted a reception in our honor at his residence later in the week, a tremendous celebration of both our long association with Việt Nam and a door opener for the future for the Hà Nội New Music Ensemble.
Tetsuji Honna, the music director of the Việt Nam National Symphony Orchestra, also became a good friend and supporter. He described the Hà Nội New Music Ensemble as potentially “a new wave” in Asia. Let’s hope he’s right!
And the three inaugural concerts were overwhelmingly well attended by a mostly Vietnamese audience.
I’ll be writing individual posts about each venue, the Ambassador’s reception, planning sessions, our Sapa retreat, various lunches, and of course, Vietnamese cuisine. No doubt about it, my Hà Nội group has the best post concert street life in the world!
Our composers included Đỗ Nhuận, Đặng Hồng Anh, Trần Kim Ngọc, Nguyễn Minh Nhật, Đặng Hữu Phúc and Vũ Nhật Tàn. We played in three superb venues, the new Old Quarter Cultural Center, the Manzi Art Space and the Grand Hall of the Việt Nam National Academy, and anticipate working with the Alliance Française and the Goethe Institute in future seasons. All the acoustics are fantastic, so that problem is solved from the get go, a major development.
All of this exciting activity takes place against a stunning backdrop, the city of Hà Nội. As Ambassador Osius told me privately, after a career of 30 years in Asia he finds Hà Nội the most beautiful city in the region. There is an intoxicating combination of the gone but not forgotten French era and its now vintage architecture, the Vietnamese energy that produces a show that never closes against a cuisine so exquisite it’s not surprising to find a lot of French chefs married to Vietnamese spouses. There are tree lined boulevards everywhere, a soundtrack of honking horns that would make John Cage deliriously happy and numerous lakes everywhere you go.
I can still claim that my most popular blog post is about Cộng Cà Phê, which has the most incredible coffee on Planet Earth. Sure, I love the music, but with coffee like this jet lag tastes so good! There is no exaggeration that the thoughts and plots of the Hà Nội New Music Ensemble this October have been held at one of Cộng Cà Phê’s many locations throughout Hà Nội.
Another important ingredient that came into view this trip was easily finding the most amazing tutor for the Vietnamese language. The tonality of Vietnamese is fearsome and elusive to learn, and hard as Jan and I try we are still utter novices. But not with Trần Thu Thủy, the wife of violinist Phạm Trường Sỏn. One of the countries leading singers, Thủy is able to give us confidence about pronunciation, as she explains like a taskmaster how to shape our facial muscles to get closer to the correct pronunciation. So with hard work and Facetime lessons, some day we’ll be speaking Vietnamese. That’s a sentence I never thought I would write!
There’s no accident in the photo above. Jan and I had so many in home meals that they will become a blog all their own! And for any cooks who read my blog, I have the magic ingredient of roasted black cardamom pods and other Hà Nội dried herbs plus Thủy’s recipe to make the best stock for Vietnamese phở bò. Exciting!
Việt Nam is famous for its soup, beef noodle soup in particular, which is a hybrid dish stemming from the French era. But it deserves its international reputation, and no where is better than in the Old Quarter of Hà Nội. Check back as our friends put foodie bloggers to shame with their knowledge of the best spots. Trust me on this!
Food is a recurring theme in my blog posts, as I come from a restaurant family. How I wish my parents could have watched Old Quarter families preparing their meals, how they organize serving great cuisine on the street. My folks would be like Jan and me are, utterly amazed!
So, yes, the ingredients are all there in Hà Nội, composers, players, venues, and cuisine all combining into an intoxicating mix. We have much work to do, pieces to learn, plans to dream, people to contact and need to dedicate ourselves to more practice, practice, practice. But I have no doubt that given a few years of hard work together, we’ll be ready to make a huge dent on the international scene. Get ready world!
And talk about ingredients. Jan and I were honored that Ambassador Ted Osius and his husband Clayton Bond hosted a reception for us and the inauguration of the Hà Nội New Music Ensemble at their stunning 1920s French era residence, a big encouragement for all of us involved in the ensemble. He goes by the name Hà Nội Ted on Facebook and let’s just say he knows how to break the ice!
And so we concluded our first trip with a unanimous idea to have a planning retreat for next steps outside of Hà Nội. Our friends were anxious to take us to Sapa, which I am happy to tell you is Vietnam’s answer to California’s Big Sur coastline and a welcome relief from the humidity that can often characterize Hà Nội’s weather (travel tip: late October to end of February is a lot cooler in Hà Nội). The terraced rice fields and lush valleys are like an Asian Switzerland. I never thought I’d see my breath in Việt Nam, but the weather in Sapa is chilly!
I’m writing this blog post in Kyoto, Japan, on the night before Thanksgiving, one of the most important holidays in the United States. The world can be a terrifying mess from time to time, but we’ve been inspired in finding another path. I had hoped that there would be a postive energy between me as an American conductor with my many Vietnamese colleagues. There has to be chemistry to make music together on stage.
As I look at all the photos, I see that everybody is smiling. A photo, like music, doesn’t lie. And make no mistake, the vocabulary of new music is new territory for my Vietnamese friends. But their attitude exemplified an esprit de corps, a French term I can use now without irony, that inspired their Vietnamese audiences and that makes me anxious to return. Plans are already moving forward for our next steps, so stay connected in the coming months. We’re only getting started!
I love the photo above, as it captures a moment that I hope will become more and more routine for my friends in the Hà Nội New Music Ensemble. Discussing new music, their new music, in Vietnamese with their own composers. It’s a tall order, as the composers already have a very advanced vocabulary that might cause any group in the world pause, but that’s especially true in Hanoi.
I think a musical dragon woke up this October and I was honored to lead the first sounds it heard. And as that dragon woke up, it heard Vietnamese new music that will soon be familiar in Hà Nội and beyond, way beyond. Because the story of Việt Nam is one the world needs to remember and pay attention to as time moves forward.
More blog posts on the way!
Best, best, best,