Alexandra du Bois, Apollo Chamber Players, David Harrington, Gabriela Ortiz, Hanoi, Hanoi New Music Ensemble, Ken Burns, Kent Nagano, Kronos String Quartet, Kurt Rohde, Southwest Chamber Music, Van Anh Vo, Vu Nhat Tan
I am very happy, as in a proud new music grandfather happy, that the Apollo Chamber Players in Houston, Texas are inspired by our 2010 Ascending Dragon Festival and Cultural Exchange, a landmark project that Jan Karlin and I were proud to produce for the U.S. State Department under Secretary Hillary Clinton. And we did indeed accomplish the goals of the Obama Administration, to establish long term cultural relationships between Việt Nam and the United States, a new 21st century chapter, but this time together as friends and not enemies.
In 2010, Ascending Dragon was a six week festival in both countries. In May of 2012, I brought Vũ Nhật Tân and Alexandra du Bois together again for our first Los Angeles International New Music Festival. Since October 2015, Jan and I have made a long term and ongoing commitment as the first Americans appointed as artistic advisors by the Vietnamese Ministry of Culture. Our mission is to guide and facilitate the international development of the Hà Nội New Music Ensemble. And now in 2018, Apollo Chamber Players is reuniting composers Vũ Nhật Tân and Alexandra du Bois, two of the Ascending Dragon composers-in-residence, with a concert sharing their music, deep in the heart of Texas.
“No project ever fell fully formed from the sky,” said our friend David Harrington of the Kronos Quartet to us a few years ago in Los Angeles. Truer words have never been spoken.
I’ve learned over thirty years of concert production that audiences enjoy in-depth background information. So for the Apollo players and their audience in Houston, friends in Việt Nam and my blog visitors around the world in 150 countries, I’ll do my best to let you in on how this all came about.
Because opposites can attract. I don’t think the continued pairing of Vũ Nhật Tân and Alexandra du Bois is by accident, even though their music and experiences are quite different. You certainly wouldn’t discern any aural bond by studying their scores.
Allow me to set the scene for you who are new to my posts and go back in time by eight or nine years. The circumstances that allow these two composers to meet are pretty amazing. I’m not surprised they are reuniting again!
In spring of 2009, I closed the door of my office, exhausted on many levels, both personally and professionally. Jan and I had returned from a planning trip to Việt Nam. The circumstances were anything if not complicated, but I’ve come to appreciate that that’s par for the course when dealing with this potentially vexing Southeast Asian country for any outsider.
After an all important staff planning meeting about Ascending Dragon, I finally let down. Why? Jet lag? Cold feet? Overwork? No, I was crashing because of grief and mourning.
We had buried my mother three days before leaving for a long and intricately planned preparatory trip to Sài Gòn and Hà Nội for the U.S. State Department.
She seemed to pass away on cue, knowing what was on my plate. She realized the serious responsibilities Jan and I were facing serving our country, creating a new chapter with Việt Nam. So she did finally let go on February 28. She had joked with me on her death bed “Don’t worry about me, somebody has to go first, it might was well be me!”
But then we got a phone call in Hà Nội on March 19th. Or was it March 20th? We’re never quite sure. The news was that my mother-in-law Eileen Karlin went second, passing away quite unexpectedly in New Jersey three weeks after my mom, literally at the exact time we were signing the contracts with the Vietnamese to confirm their participation in our State Department project.
So while I was in my office with the door closed, I was finally assaulted by crushing duality. Welcome again to dealing with Việt Nam. I wanted to simultaneously do my best work, as my mom had encouraged me to do with this project, but also throw everything into the ocean and just cry my eyes out. Jet lag combined with mourning and planning the biggest project of your career is quite a recipe for testing your limits.
The door was closed, the office quiet, lots of correspondence and things to do were still on my desk. Staring at me, after I eventually calmed down, was Job One. The realisation that I needed to select two American composers to be composers-in-residence, and soon, or there would be little time for those candidates to clear their schedules and put a commission and trip to Việt Nam and Los Angeles on their schedules.
I’ve always said programming is not for the faint of heart.
”How the hell am I going to do this?” I said to myself, staring out my window.
So I called my lifeline, old friend Kent Nagano, who in fact remains on my advisory board and, wait for it, actually advises us. The time change with Europe allowed me more time to reflect. His note-perfect assistant Christa Pfeffer quickly got back to me from Munich, as she always does. Sure enough we were on the phone for a long call the next day.
“Man, this is a big one,” came Kent’s soothing voice over the phone, with the California familiarity we use in friendship. “How are you? Let’s put our heads together, OK?”
I brought him up to date on the complications Jan and I had faced together the last few months, going beyond our ongoing email correspondence. We eventually settled in to discussing the topic at hand.
“Don’t even think about a call for scores, a competition, or asking a convenient local colleague just to move on. This project needs the perfect two American composers, nothing else will work. You need to know they have the personal humility to absorb what you hope to accomplish in Việt Nam. Any composer who even hesitates to accept won’t be up for it, that’s your cue to move on, don’t accept any major hesitation – listen to it. It never turns out well. I’ve got a few ways for you to the consider this.
“One is easy – just invite Kurt Rohde. He’s a a brilliant composer, virtuosic violist and a great guy. His orchestration is thoroughly professional, which I love and is, sadly, very rare these days. Kurt has a sound as a composer. He’s also the type of natural who doesn’t realize that everybody else might find his music challenging to play, but that keeps him moving forward. This is no problem for you to solve with your players. So Kurt has got you halfway, and who in the hell would turn you down with this project? Trust me, he’ll say yes.”
“Kent, thanks as it’s always timing, isn’t it?” I replied. “You put Kurt on my radar a few years ago with good reason. This Việt Nam project is now the right project for us to work together. I’ll start with Kurt. OK, what do you think will get me to one more composer?”
”You’re not wrong to have thought about a competition or a prize. But, man, you don’t want to administer this, you’ll drown in applications for sure and that in and of itself will bog you down for at least six months. You are also right you’ve got to move on this. Maybe look at it this way: lots of other groups have had competitions and prizes. They’ve done your work for you! I think after you do your research on the web, you’ll have a sense of your next choice, and whoever it is will probably jump out at you. My recommendation, for starters, is to check out what David and Kronos have cooked up recently. What do you think?”
One thing about asking someone with considerable experience for professional advice: be prepared to accept the recommendation, or don’t ask.
So I got to work, searching a few websites (Kent had made a few other suggestions as well). When I looked at the Kronos Quartet website, I noted quite a few potential candidates from their Under 30 project. But one composer stood out from all the rest.
An Eye for An Eye Makes the Whole World Blind, the title of a string quartet inspired by Mahatma Gandhi by Alexandra du Bois, caught my attention. She had written the piece as a protest to the Iraq War. Then I saw Night Songs, inspired by the poetry of Etty Hillesum, who died in the Holocaust at Auschwitz, a second commission from the Kronos Quartet. That was persuasive. Then a piece for the farewell tour of the Beaux Arts Trio, and a violin duo for virtuoso Daniel Hope. Was I close to finding the right person?
I kept researching quite a few composers, as I had a few weeks grace period until I needed to extend invitations (if long range planning has a curse, it is its ability to collapse time and deadline, for me best negotiated by experience). And Kent Nagano was right. As I kept returning to this and that website over the next few weeks, Alexandra was the one composer who kept jumping out at me. How lucky was I that Kent and my wife Jan went all the way back to working together at the Boston Opera Company for Sarah Caldwell!
Olivier Messiaen and Pierre Boulez helped shaped Kent’s career, which informs my work with the Hà Nội New Music Ensemble. Here’s how: Messiaen recommended Kent to Boulez and Boulez was very supportive of Vietnamese composers Nguyễn Thiên Đạo (who studied with Messiaen) and Tôn Thất Tiết, giving green lights to Ensemble Intercontemporain commissions to both of them. Kent Nagano was charged with the world premiere for the Tiết commission, so you don’t have to read between the lines. Everything with Việt Nam is family!
Messiaen understood his immensely independent and talented student, and to paraphrase him said something like “Some people can go through life and not be bothered about the current situation. Pierre cannot.” And that describes my feelings about Alexandra and her music. She wrote an Iraq protest piece as her first commission for Kronos, a work that is basically an adagio. She was under thirty and willing to take a huge risk, and prominent musicians recommended she consider a different direction, but she followed her heart. To comprehend her second commission from David Harrington, basing a piece on the Holocaust poetry of Etty Hillesum, Alexandra secured funds to take a train journey from Amsterdam to Auschwitz to walk in Hillesum’s footsteps. In another era, Alexandra might be described as a Stanislavsky Method composer!
My mom was looking out for me. I’d found the right two composers. And the right two persons. I needed both for Việt Nam.
I met Vũ Nhật Tân in 2006. To make a very long story very short, our ensemble Southwest Chamber Music in Los Angeles was the first American ensemble to tour to Cambodia after the Khmer Rouge and Việt Nam after the Vietnam War, with composer Chinary Ung. This major project, which was funded by my wife Jan raising all the money the old fashioned American way, by asking private individuals (most connected by experiences with the Vietnam War), created the confidence for the U.S. State Department to select us to focus on Việt Nam in 2008. We had reached consideration but then were declined by State for our 2006 tour. This experience did, however, put our foot in the door with leadership position staff members, who also administer the Fulbright Awards.
Retrospective Fun Fact: don’t give up!
Vũ Nhật Tân had studied in Cologne, Germany with Johannes Fritsch, a member of Stockhausen’s inner circle of players, and then went on to UCSD to study with Chinary Ung of Cambodia. Like many composers, he came to my hotel to meet me with a big package of his scores and asked me to take a look.
I’m still studying!
His music is textural, and infused with an exposition and knowledge of the real Việt Nam. No one knows Hà Nội like he does (and yes, adios Anthony Bourdain, he knows the best street food spots). One will experience layers upon layers upon layers of fast moving and dense harmonies, about as far away from Alexandra’s world as you can get. To sort out his harmonic fingerprint is a major task in rehearsal. His sound as a composer has a powerful metaphor in the traffic of his home city of Hà Nội. Dense and congested but always moving together, a functioning contradiction. He is following in the footsteps of his predecessors, Nguyễn Thiên Đạo and Tôn Thất Tiết, being influenced in a big way by Tiết.
We are currently working together on a major full evening work, The Five Elements written for a collaborative team featuring the poetry of Nguyễn Duy, the Ancient Ensemble of Tonkin and the Hà Nội New Music Ensemble. I’ve a few other posts about this inspired project if you are interested, and I believe The Five Elements has the ability to rebrand Việt Nam on the international stage. The work is a warning about the dangers of ignoring climate change, from a distinctly Vietnamese point of view.
Yes, America, Việt Nam is a country, not a war.
And it was Vũ Nhật Tân who introduced me to Văn Ánh Võ, who will be in Houston with him for the Apollo Chamber Players. In 2012, the Asia Cultural Council in New York City funded a six week residency for him to return to Los Angeles, this time as composer-in-residence for our inaugural Los Angeles International New Music Festival. We used the time to plan next steps that are now bearing fruit and helped in part by the Peter Drucker Institute. I’d put him in touch with Vietnam Veteran and poet Bruce Weigl, and they produced a gut punch piece, The Song of Napalm. A key role was played by Văn Ánh Võ, who would anchor this amazing work, also commissioned by Randy Schoenberg. So there is a pattern to my next steps!
And for good measure she has played a major role in the recent Kronos Quartet production of My Lai and was the only Vietnamese musician on the soundtrack for the Burns/Novick PBS documentary on the Vietnam War. Văn Ánh was a member of the Water Puppet Ensemble in Hà Nội and met her husband on tour in the Bay Area, where she now lives. She also went to school with Vũ Nhật Tân in Hà Nội. Our most recent meeting in October 2017 was a delight, and I’m sure the right project will soon be found for us to work together again, and hopefully in Hà Nội as we discussed!
For those new to my blog, especially Apollo audience members, I’ve written quite a few posts for more information on Vũ Nhật Tân, and take a moment to find what might interest you. And I’m again wonderfully proud that audiences deep in the heart of Texas will be exposed to both of these amazing composers. Opposites do attract, and Alexandra du Bois and Vũ Nhật Tân represent a new chapter between the United States and Việt Nam, a book Jan and I are happy to continue to pursue with our work with the Hà Nội New Music Ensemble. If you’ve not been to Việt Nam, come hear us together!
The photo above is of a pre-concert talk in 2012, pairing Rio Bravo by Gabriela Ortiz, Night Songs by Alexandra du Bois, Miroir, mémoire in its world premiere by Tôn Thất Tiết (who could not join us from Paris) and the world premiere of The Song of Napalm by Vũ Nhật Tân. Author Martin Perlich was the moderator, the voice of George Szell’s Cleveland Orchestra, an Honorary Member of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, and a project development producer for Leonard Bernstein. I’m happy Houston audiences will have the opportunity to hear from two of these four composers!
And bringing Martin Perlich into my post allows me to reflect on the observation of Leonard Bernstein. “To do great things you need two things: a plan and not quite enough time.” Martin has always had my back and when he told me about this saying of, to him Bernstein was unequivocally “Lenny,” it helped a lot. That is absolutely what I experienced finding Kurt Rohde and Alexandra du Bois, indeed producing the entire Ascending Dragon project!
And one more thing, about the answers by Kurt Rohde and Alexandra du Bois to my invitation to participate in Ascending Dragon. Kent Nagano was right on this one, too, that I’d know a lot by how they’d respond to my invitation.
Within one hour after sending my letters of invitation to discuss the project, we were signed, sealed and delivered with an enthusiastic “YES!” from both of them. My mom was still watching out for me, I’m sure, with a little help from a good friend from Morro Bay in Central California, via the Boston Opera Company and my incredible wife Jan.
Happy Mother’s Day and happy listening, Houston!
Best, best, best,