Ambassador Ted Osius, Asia, Cong Caphe, Dang Hong Anh, Danh Huu Phuc, Do Nhuan, DomDom, Geir Johnson, Hanoi, Hanoi New Music Ensemble, Kim Ngoc Tran, Los Angeles International New Music Festival, Manzi Art Space, Nguyen Minh Nhat, Old Quarter Cultural Center in Hanoi, Pham Truong Son, Song Hong Ensemble, Vietnam, VNSO String Quartet, Vu Nhat Tan
If I were asked to put my impressions of the Vietnamese on the back of a business card, I’d probably settle on “the most resourceful people on Earth.” My friends there have a way of tunneling under, going around, slicing through, or soaring above any and all situations life throws in their way. Sometimes they do these things simultaneously, which makes working in Vietnam always interesting.
Before I was approached to be an official artistic advisor and conductor to the Hanoi New Music Ensemble, I was made aware of many new developments in the performing arts infrastructure in Hanoi. But one report, of a new cultural center smack in the heart of the intoxicating Old Quarter, helped me go from interested to YES!
As our scheduling discussions took place via email and Facebook, a debut concert for the Hanoi New Music Ensemble at the new Old Quarter Cultural Center seemed to be the perfect choice. A joint effort of the City of Hanoi, French architects and a final third floor performing space underwritten by the Norwegian government, via its representative Geir Johnson, this new space gives the Old Quarter an artistic meeting point that is ideal. The acoustics are superb. Hard wood floors don’t hurt!
I am sure that as the Hanoi New Music Ensemble develops over the next few years this Old Quarter Cultural Center will play a key role in our activities. After all, the street life of Hanoi is one of the great reasons to visit this beautiful capital city of Vietnam. Placing serious new music projects in the Old Quarter will become an international selling point for us as an ensemble. Or to put this another way, every composer I talk to about my activities in Vietnam wants to make a visit. Just give us a few years to consolidate our abilities and administration and you’ll be amazed!
Let’s get started with an urban introduction. Allow me to set the cityscape stage of my group’s Old Quarter performing space.
As you know from reading my posts, I come from a restaurant family in Los Angeles. Shopping, chopping, cutting, slicing, measuring, sharpening, all the daily routines of cooking are part of the DNA my caring but task-mastering parents gave me. When I travel, I’ve got enough background in working in a professional kitchen that observing food preparation technique comes naturally.
And I am endlessly fascinated and hugely impressed observing the routine of daily life that feeds the people of Hanoi. Let’s start with shopping for your groceries.
One important note for travelers to Hanoi. Many of the best street markets open and close early in the day. So get up early, around 6:30 AM, to enjoy the best views of an everyday show that never ends, but does close around noon (or when everything is sold) on a busy day. If you sleep in, you might miss what I’m talking about.
And it is not just food that is available in the Old Quarter. Street life teems with activity, a cacophonous mixture of beep-beep cycle horns, deliveries being made of all kinds, conversations, a stew of languages from tourists. Hanoi has a sound world that would have made John Cage endlessly fascinated.
My wife Jan experienced a sandal strap becoming undone because of the humidity. We asked our friend Vu Nhat Tan if we could get it repaired, and after a few seconds of thought we bounded together onto Shoe Area in the Old Quarter. Problem solved in under one hour.
And now for a Health Spoiler Alert. Jan and I have never gotten sick from Hanoi street food (this is a possibility anywhere, not just in Vietnam). And that’s because we’ve followed the advice of our friends, composers Kim Ngoc Tran and Vu Nhat Tan. It’s their hometown and welcoming us for this trip was obviously a special occasion, so you can trust the following recommendations.
Everyone accepts that musicians know the best places to eat (one of the reasons behind my blog’s success, I’d wager), so from various places for Vietnamese pho bo, coffee, or sugar cane juice, you might want to find these insider locations when you go to the Old Quarter. And you’re welcome!
The other highly recommended place for pho bo is Happy Noodle, which is close to an Essence Hotel. We love the place and here’s a travel tip: keep walking down the alley after an early morning bowl of soup (they open most days at 5:30 AM) and you’ll come across the market area featured in the beginning of my post.
Back to 50C Hang Vai Street and Chuyen Pho Bo. Across the street is a delicious place for sugar cane juice, a perfect Hanoi specialty which really hits the spot after a bowl of this incredible soup. Make yourself at home and enjoy yourself! Don’t worry about language when ordering. These are one dish places in Hanoi, with just slight variations. Menu reading is not necessary. As Yogi Berra might have said, you can observe a lot by watching, and in the Old Quarter just follow your eyes to the dish you might want and point!
Need a little help overcoming jet-lag? Then you are in not just the right city, you’re in the best city on earth!
If you know my blog (or have had a cup in my Pasadena home) you know I believe the GREATEST coffee in the world is found at Hanoi’s Cong CaPhe. I think I’ve got the only good supply in the United States! There are branches blooming up all around Hanoi, and one is now open in Saigon. There’s a good Old Quarter location by St. Joseph’s Cathedral that became my home away from home office.
If you need an Old Quarter sit down restaurant, reports from the likes of Travel Channel’s Andrew Zimmern aren’t far off. New Day Restaurant remains a great place to sample Vietnamese food typical of Hanoi style. In fact, Vu Nhat Tan took us and our visiting Los Angeles Vietnamese friends Nam Hau and Luu Nguyen there for a long discussion (a separate post will come soon about them). That should be all you need to know!
I hope this short exposition gives you a good picture of a few of the reasons we love the Old Quarter of Hanoi. Because to have the opportunity to animate this urban landscape with the debut of the Hanoi New Music Ensemble was a special opportunity.
And everything fell into place. A host of Vietnamese musicians from various groups including the Vietnam National Academy, the Song Hong Chamber Ensemble, members of the Vietnam National Symphony Orchestra with its resident string quartet and Kim Ngoc Tran’s Dom Dom experimental organization combined for a total of 24 players, a pretty good indication of shared excitement. An all Vietnamese program (my request) included music by Do Nhuan, Dang Hong Anh, Dang Huu Phuc, Nguyen Minh Nhat, Kim Ngoc Tran and Vu Nhat Tan. These various groups joined together for the first public concert in the Old Quarter Cultural Center for the Hanoi New Music Ensemble, inaugurating a statement series we called Generations, a brilliant name suggested by Jan Karlin and readily accepted in Hanoi, with three concerts in October 2015.
Upon our arrival in Hanoi rehearsals got underway, organized by violinist Pham Truong Son and clarinetist Bao Coc.
I’m happy to say that the new music telepathy necessary between an ensemble and its director, the esprit de corps I was hoping for when I got on the plane in Los Angeles to travel to Vietnam, was fully realized in performance. Though without question we have much to do, all the ingredients are in place to one day achieve a world class new music group.
But these were not the only ingredients that made our debut concert memorable. It was announced January 2, 2016 in the New York Times that President Obama is hosting all the leaders of ASEAN in Palm Springs February 15-16 and that he will visit Laos in September. A presidential visit to Vietnam this May is still being worked out. So it’s no surprise that Ambassador Ted Osius made our appointments as the first officially approved American arts advisors in Hanoi a priority on his busy schedule.
We were pleased to have the Ambassador attend the inaugural concert in the Old Quarter and address the audience. He also hosted a reception in our honor celebrating the debut of the Hanoi New Music Ensemble at his French era Embassy Residence, which will receive its own blog post soon.
And in a world that appears to be a big scary mess, Ambassador Osius supported our appointments in Hanoi as part of the Daniel Pearl World Music Days. Because the obvious symbolism of our work in Hanoi is that culture reconciles former enemies. That’s a good thing for a new music ensemble to animate. And something my Vietnamese colleagues and I share as a long term goal is to create projects that change people’s minds in many ways and from multiple perspectives, both musically and culturally. I am certain our projects can attain an international reach. This is an inspiring endeavor and as Americans we’re honored to participate.
With all of these pieces of an international puzzle in place, it was now up to the players to put forward their own music, Vietnamese new music, to their audience. There was a lot of anticipation about that first audience. Would we have a good crowd? What would it look like? Vietnamese? Expats? And, most importantly for me, would the new challenges of new music improve onstage, or would the promise of the rehearsals suffer some first night jitters?
Imagine the pride and excitement of packed houses for all three October performances! I am sure that this response inspired the players as it did me as their conductor. Each performance gained in expressiveness, intensity and control. In particular Kim Ngoc’s notation was a Brave New World for my players. They’d never truly experienced a free notation before. In rehearsals I patiently explained the timing, sang the pitches, tuned the chords, constantly reminding my friends of the need for every dynamic, every marking of a harmonic, a snap pizzicato here, a quarter tone bend there, the overall timing contrasting with moments of fixed tempi, all had to make their full impact with precision. Imagine Stockhausen with a Vietnamese accent and Kim’s music can come into your imagination.
Photos do not lie and you can see for yourself! The opening night Old Quarter audience was 90% Vietnamese, far beyond my best hope, and that percentage would continue at each performance. No need for endless discussions about outreach to gather a crowd in Hanoi. You could touch a deep connection from the audience devoted to hearing their own voices reflected in serious music. I even received a few Facebook audience poems of thanks to celebrate the concerts!
Music releases a powerful energy. All of us have a few performances that stay in our mind, and a great reward of a career onstage is memories amplifying from decades of countless concerts. A lot of music’s power came out into the open that night at the debut of the Hanoi New Music Ensemble in the Old Quarter Cultural Center, which of course was a full moon. A glass ceiling cracked and then would break in the next two concerts. The world had better get ready for us!
And with a nod toward continuity connecting my 10 years of work in Vietnam to this new adventure, we closed the concert with Vu Nhat Tan’s PHO (or STREET), an apt piece for this debut concert describing the vibrant urban landscape of Hanoi. Commissioned by Los Angeles patrons Sue Bienkowski and Wang Chung Lee, PHO is a concertino for that quintessential Vietnamese instrument, the dan bau. Our player was the radiant Le Chi Bui, who’d played the 2010 world premiere with me during the Ascending Dragon Festival.
And if you know Hanoi, you’ll know how amazing what I have to say next is – because street noise and the Old Quarter go hand in hand. Of course, to put it mildly, the outside world can intrude on the inside world of acoustics. It can happen in Vienna with an ambulance, New York City with a subway underneath Zankel Hall in Carnegie Hall, or on Grand Avenue with fire truck sirens at REDCAT in Walt Disney Concert Hall.
However, the Old Quarter of Hanoi brings street noise to a whole new level. But we had luck, or magic or both, on our side that night in the Old Quarter. In some mysterious way, Vu Nhat Tan’s PHO silenced the street of his own dense musical description (sometimes I think I’m still rehearsing his polytonal chords!). Tan’s final, quiet dan bau solo was left alone, in silence, for the audience to savor. No stray motorcycle “beep-beep”, no shouts from a nearby street. Just a calm silence. Which I held as long as I humanly could.
During that silent moment, the deepest connection a performance achieves between audience and musician, I knew we’d grabbed a tiger by the tail and were heading towards an auspicious future.
And so the Hanoi New Music Ensemble went from dream to reality. After concert pictures were numerous, and I’ll post a few of them. I think you’ll agree the enthusiasm is contagious! Let alone the Old Quarter after-concert party!
And so, a wonderful debut concert concluded, it’s time for us to return back to the street life of Hanoi’s Old Quarter, which I described for you at the opening of this post. One thing I know for sure. My Hanoi players have the greatest after concert street life in the world! Just a few steps away from the Old Cultural Center and voila beer after beer flowed easily along with some of the greatest snacks imaginable and amazingly boisterous toasts of clanging beer mugs.
Look for my next post soon as we’ll go just a little north from Hanoi’s Old Quarter to the Old French Quarter, where few if any tourists venture. The second concert of the Hanoi New Music Ensemble took place at the incredible Manzi Art Space. Built in the 1920s by a French trained Vietnamese architect, this art gallery, coffee shop and performance space is just the spot for new events to gain a solid foothold and develop a loyal audience. Our concert was the best attended event in the Space’s history, not bad for beginners!
The French are of course long gone from Vietnam but they did inspire some incredible acoustics in this almost forgotten but now renovated villa. Let’s just say Manzi Art Space is the perfect location for a chamber ensemble or string quartet. And the pillars? They remind me of our successful 20 year run of summer concerts at The Huntington Library. At least I’m familiar with addressing an audience seeing Greek columns in my view!
Stay connected as I continue these Hanoi stories soon with numerous posts. Surrounding our activities in Hanoi were meetings in Singapore, Malaysia, Hong Kong and Tokyo, all strategically getting the word out about the Hanoi New Music Ensemble. Time will tell, but this could be the start of something big.
And the yummy street food won’t be forgotten, I promise!
Best, best, best,