Ambassdor Ted Osius, Asia, Dang Hong Anh, Danh Huu Phuc, Hanoi, Hanoi New Music Ensemble, Honna Tetsuji, Kim Ngoc Tran, Manzi Art Space, Nguyen Thien Dao, Old Quarter Cultural Center in Hanoi, Song Hong Ensemble of Hanoi, Southwest Chamber Music, Tram Vu, Vietnam, Vietnam National Symphony Orchestra, Vu Nhat Tan
I was just asked yesterday by a good friend, who has never visited Việt Nam, what remains in the country from the era of French colonialism, what might he experience if he visited. Though answering the question could fill a few volumes, I’ll give you a some general observations.
The most obvious French echoes, along with influences in Vietnamese cuisine, are the numerous buildings that one encounters all over the country, and not just in Hà Nội. This unique blend of France and Việt Nam accounts for Ambassador Ted Osius’ belief that, after 30 years of service in Asia, he believes Hà Nội is the most beautiful city in a beautiful country.
Perhaps my next point is personal, but I’m also not so sure that my observations are unique. What makes Hà Nội compelling is that the French architecture is so strong as to create a visible link between Asia and Europe, which is for me the most convincing in the entire region. Being a musician makes narrating that link with new music inspiring.
And make no mistake it is with new music that these connections approach the incandescent. The passing of both Pierre Boulez this week and Nguyễn Thiên Đạo in November bring France clearly into view. Đạo and Boulez both studied with Olivier Messiaen and it was Boulez’s IRCAM that commissioned Đạo and the still very much with us Tốn Thất Tiết. We’ll be busy in Hà Nội the next few years dealing with this musical endowment, that’s for sure.
Which brings me to next steps in my stories from the inaugural concerts of the Hà Nội New Music Ensemble this October. My last post was about our debut concert at the Old Quarter Cultural Center. For our second performance we moved to the Manzi Art Space in the Ba Đình District, where tourists are rarely found but boasts some of the best French era buildings of all. The Manzi address is 14 Phan Huy Ích Street. If you are planning to be in Hà Nội, be sure to get off the beaten path, take a taxi to Manzi, walk around the area and then spend time in this wonderful space. And you’re welcome!
Manzi Art Space was built in the 1920s by a Vietnamese architect who studied at the Indochina Fine Art School and originally belonged to a legendary figure of Vietnam – Mr. Bạch Thái Bưởi, one of the most influential businessmen of Việt Nam in the early 20th century. After years of war and political change, the house now belongs to a famous intellectual family of Hà Nội.
New characters in a story are always interesting and it’s time for Trạm Vũ, Manzi’s director, to enter the picture. She left her work with the British Council in Hanoi to guide the mission of Manzi, an artist-led space that focuses on experimental arts, organizes quality exhibitions, educational workshops and offers a proper space for artists and students to socialize, experiment and practice while also serving as an open venue for performances. And she also sports a very cool set of eyeglasses!
Trạm Vũ oversees a one-stop shop which is a space to socialize. Manzi supports itself via its cafe/bar and an art shop. The exhibitions I’ve seen are stimulating and worth seeking out. She luckily found the house in August of 2012 and it took two months to renovate. In terms of exterior design, her team brought back the original look of the house – white paint outside with light grey windows. For the interior, they decided to make the space in a way that it would fit perfectly with exhibitions (white walls and proper lighting for paintings and installations) but also serves as a multi-purpose location for its cafe/bar, films, and performances.
It’s one thing to have a multi-purpose art gallery space. But to have one with perfect acoustics is astounding! This 1920s room is an ideal location for a string quartet or small ensemble concert. And we’re beyond happy that the concert of the Hà Nội New Music Ensemble was the best attended event in Manzi’s history, spilling into the street. Bodes well for future collaborations!
I was happy upon arrival in Hà Nội to learn that the wonderful Việt Nam National Symphony Orchestra String Quartet would join my Sông Hồng Ensemble friends, augmenting the players available for the Hà Nội New Music Ensemble. Having VNSO concertmaster Đào Mai Anh perform with me for ensemble pieces by Đặng Hồng Anh and Vũ Nhật Tân certainly was a joy!
Another Manzi backstage development was the chance to talk with VNSO music director, Tetsuji Honna. We quickly became friends this fall, exchanging many ideas for the future. I’m confident our discussions will be successful. He shared that Vũ Nhật Tân’s energy reminded him of Toru Takemitsu, during the time period when Takemitsu was organizing Music Today concerts in Tokyo, intended as high praise indeed. And Tetsuji inspired me with something I’m still absorbing here in Los Angeles, as he described our presence in Hà Nội as a “New Wave” – not only for Việt Nam, but perhaps Asia as well. Just give us a a few years!
I’ve already mentioned the wonderful acoustics of the Manzi Art Space. Being on a quiet street in Hà Nội is also a big plus. I’m sure when we turn to Takemtisu, Webern or any music with quiet sonic nuance this is the ideal venue. But I also insisted on a new audience outreach activity, convincing shy composers to talk to their new audience from the first concerts.
I’m thankful that my friends Vũ Nhật Tân and Trần Kim Ngọc took my advice and talked with me to the audience about their music (the other composers were in Berlin, Warsaw or New York City, a good indication of the potential for an international audience in the future). Hearing about Vietnamese music, in Vietnamese, was electryfing to watch. I could see the Manzi audience riveted on Tan’s every word. My God, I received a poem in Vietnamese on my Facebook page after the concert, urging Hanoians to support their own musical voices. Perhaps the most touching acknowledgment of my career.
The concert at Manzi Art Center included a very special performance. Trần Kim Ngọc’s Dậy Thì, which translates to Puberty, is a revelatory work exhibiting a considerable musical mind. As the title suggests, the music is concerned with constant internal change and very sensitive and mysterious. Ngọc’s notational world was new for my players, and this performance came together in ways that surprised me with its cohesion and expressiveness from instrumentalists just starting on their new music journey.
I could hear her emotional vocabulary pouring through her fellow Vietnamese musicians as they played the piece. Trust me, conducting demands you open yourself to both individual and group dynamics! Her delicate music made a telling impression that night, and convinced me the Hà Nội New Music Ensemble was finding its audience and that the predominately Vietnamese crowd would spread the word and show up for future events. Because the music is incomplete until an audience joins the players. A genuine excitement was in the air!
Stay connected as my autumn Hà Nội journey will continue soon in future posts. After two concerts at the Old Quarter Cultural Center and Manzi Art Space, it was time for a great party celebrating the debut of the Hà Nội New Music Ensemble. Cue the U.S. Embassy and Ambassador Ted Osius for my next blog!
So stay connected for an upcoming blog about how new music intersects with U.S. foreign policy in Southeast Asia via a happy report of an official reception that put my new group on the social and foreign embassy map in Hà Nội. Stop rubbing your eyes, because, yes we are floating with serious new music in deep diplomatic waters, celebrating the 20th anniversary of normalizing relations after the Việt Nam War. Times change, thank God, or maybe that’s Buddha. Or both.
And one other thing I told my friend who’s never been to Việt Nam. My Vietnamese friends hold no grudges against the French, Japanese, or Americans who caused their country no small amount of turmoil in the 20th century. In 6 trips to the country I continue to be inspired by their humanity. Moving forward is beautiful and these people are inspirations in a world often consumed with bitter animosity. So if you’ve never been, follow my Hà Nội travel tips one day in the future and make yourself at home! Maybe even for my next concerts with the Hà Nội New Music Ensemble in 2016!
Music changes how people think and feel about things, and in Hà Nội this has wondrous impact as we create a great synergy between the U.S. and Việt Nam. These friendships make our journey all the more rewarding and the party that much more fun!
See you soon for another blog-post!
Best, best, best,