Việt Nam grabs hold of LSO musician’s heart

March 06, 2017 - 22:06

The world famous London Symphony Orchesstra performed a free concert by the city’s historic Hoàn Kiếm Lake in the heart of Hà Nội on Saturday.


Come one come all: I can’t tell you how many people were there, but they stretched into the distance as far as I could see. — Photo courtesy of Gareth Davies

Viet Nam News

by Gareth Davies*

I’ve been to many places in my life in the orchestra, but there are some that remain in my memory longer than most. The sounds echo in my head long after the last note is sounded, the aromas linger when the flowers are gone and the taste remains after the last drop is drunk. Many places demand that you leave your heart, but the unexpected fracture your soul and inhabit your dreams.At the final stop on this two and a half week tour, I’d have been delighted to go home instead. I miss my family, I’m tired and I need a break... but there is one last concert in Hà Nội.I don’t know about you, but my feelings about Việt Nam are coloured from countless films and television shows about the war. Whenever I mentioned to friends that I was travelling to Hà Nội to do a concert with the LSO, they usually had a puzzled look about them. Why go there? Is it dangerous? I didn’t know what to expect and the ’experts’ on trip advisor warned of all sorts of awful things that could happen to the unwary traveller. It was only two and a half days and then I’d be home. But it only took a matter of hours.

Arriving on Vietnam Airlines, our sponsor for this part of the tour, I was greeted with an enormous bunch of flowers from the managing director. It was quite a surprise and of course my colleagues enjoyed taking the mickey for hours afterwards. Airports are almost exactly the same the world over. The road from the fake glamour of the terminal soon leads out into a hinterland of depots, warehouses and the detritus of international air freight. When landing in a new place, I always have to remind myself that visitors to London have to get through this kind of chaos before discovering the beauty of the city. If you’ve ever landed at any of the New York airports, you’ll know it’s the same deal. Hà Nội is different. We’d not been out of the terminal for longer than five minutes before the buildings disappeared and we were speeding through countryside. Crops being plowed by farmers with their distinctive hats following cattle as they worked the fields. Women bent double, their hands submerged in the paddy fields. The view from my window so perfectly encapsulated the type of landscape I imagined had disappeared years ago that I began to wonder whether this was some elaborate ruse by the Hà Nội tourist board. But as the fields stretched out to the horizon, it became clear that this was no Disneyland, this was Việt Nam. As the sun dipped towards the earth, the light dazzled off the water in the paddy fields in a golden shimmer. It was breathtaking.The centre of Hà Nội couldn’t be more different. The first thing that hits you is the noise. The traffic is unbelievable. As we lurch from junction to junction, our bus is surrounded by a swarm of scooters. They fill every available bit of road space like sand in a jar full of pebbles. When you look closer, the scooters are filled with all human life. One, two, three or sometimes more passengers perch precariously on the seat; sometimes whole families travel together on one scooter. Another flies past with about twenty kids bikes piled high on the back, narrowly avoiding the woman going in the other direction, her scooter entirely disguised with watermelons. And then by some communal extra sensory perception, the vehicles part, like a river round a rock midstream, and avoid the small, stooped woman weighed down with a stick across her shoulder, a basket at each end full of a fruit I’ve never seen before. She doesn’t look or pause, but walks slowly across several lanes of traffic, safe knowing that the drivers and riders of Hà Nội will drive round her. Breathtaking in a very different way. But it’s not as easy as it looks as I try to cross my first road, my nerve gives out and I shadow a confident local instead. Surely it’s easier to pass into the kingdom of heaven than thread your way through the Hà Nội traffic.My friends all go out for refreshment as soon as we reach the hotel, but I have interviews or do for radio 3 and the world service on the phone so arrange to meet them later. It’s difficult to describe the city having just driven in and showered, but talking about the music is no problem, we’ve been playing it all tour. When I’m finally free, I go down to the lobby where Chi has come to take me to meet everyone. As soon as we go out into the balmy night air and disappear down a maze of streets, I see why he didn’t even begin to try and describe where they had all ended up. It’s 7pm and darkness makes the city seem even more mysterious. The roads are still buzzing with all kinds of traffic in the old quarter, but the pavements are full of scooters parked up in lines, so we have to trust the kindness of the locals as we stake our claim on the road.

The air smells sweet. A man squats on the pavement fanning charcoal, coaxing the flames to life, a plate of chicken ready to cook. A group of twenty somethings sit on tiny chairs, swigging beer, smoking and shelling nuts, the waste crunching underfoot. Two old men on the corner locked in a silent battle of wits over a chessboard look like they may not have moved for centuries and everywhere people sit outside talking, playing, being. There are decades of electrical wiring hanging from the telegraph poles like the roots of the banyan trees, feeding this buzzing city and it’s only when you look up that you notice the unique blend of architecture, from modern to colonial and further back over a thousand years. When we find our friends at the end of a narrow alley they are in a small bar. They are the only people there except for the two women who run the place and if I didn’t know better, I’d say it was the front room of their house. Chris tells me that the beers are 80p each, but she has to run down the road to get them. Maybe it is her house-maybe we are being overcharged, who knows; in Việt Nam, the currency has many zeros and we are millionaires.Everybody we speak to in restaurants and on the street knows about the concert. It seems like a big deal here, unsurprising as the massive stage has been under construction in the park for a week and the roads all down one side of the lake in the centre of town are being closed to traffic. Without seeing just how busy the roads are, you can’t possibly understand just how big an impact that will have! No wonder everybody knows about the concert. As I grow weary, I sit on a park bench looking out at the dancing lights on the lake. There is an old man sat at the other end clamping a cigarette between teeth not long for his mouth."Parlais vous Francais?" He asks, the cigarette dancing at his lip."Oui, un peut."He smiles and beckons me closer and we chat in broken French. He knows about the concert and is anxious to know if I like Hà Nội? Was it what I expected, he asks. No, I reply. He laughs, no, it never is what people expect, it’s always better he nods. He tells me that he is 85 years old and was a soldier in the war and he talks about how much better things are now. I am grateful for my schoolboy French. We shake hands and I leave him staring wistfully across the lake.

The next day after a little more exploring, is filled with interviews, a press conference and another radio slot. There is much interest in why we are here as we are the first British orchestra to visit. The Vietnamese press want to know how long we’ve been practicing their national anthem. Which version are we playing? Who orchestrated it... suddenly it’s the piece that we are all worried about the most and in a way, the one we need to play the best.

There are giant screens erected on the road by the lake to allow anyone to watch, but nobody really has any idea of how many people will come. In front of the stage are hundreds of chairs for the VIPs. So after a brief sound check the orchestra play through the Vietnamese national anthem. I’m not in this part of the concert so I’m standing at the back of the seated area.

I look nervously around at the locals bustling around putting programmes on seats, attaching seat numbers and all the other hundreds of small things that need to be put in place before such a huge event. As soon as the orchestra reach the end of the second bar of the anthem, they have all stopped what they’re doing and are standing up, beaming at the stage. We must be getting it right... what a relief!The day before a small group of players had done some education work at the local music college and today some of their students are sat on the stage; their excitement is obvious. We all too easily forget how lucky we are in London to have so much culture available to us and there are times when I see some music students looking jaded and uninterested in what’s going on as they sit with us. For these Hà Nội students though, this is an opportunity too good to miss.

Bindi tells me that they were so excited to be asked to sit amongst us in the rehearsal as they know the LSO sound from recordings and couldn’t believe that we would let them onstage. You can spot them easily from the seats because of their smiles. Some of them speak very good English, some very little, but once the music starts, we all speak the same language.

Despite being in the orchestra for 17 years, I still find the sound of the LSO overwhelming at times and I can see the look on their faces as we begin. During the third movement of the Rachmaninov 2nd symphony, After Chris Richards stunning clarinet solo, the music builds to an extraordinary crescendo. I look across at the young violinist sat next to Maxine and he can’t take it anymore, he is completely overwhelmed, tears rolling down his cheeks. Maxine stops and gives him a hug -- we all know that feeling. It’s a moment none of us will forget.As we take the final bow of the concert we leave the stage and are told to go round the corner and wave to the crowds watching on the screen. I must admit that I assumed they would have left as it takes a few minutes for the orchestra to assemble there, but I was wrong. We turned the corner and the enormous cheer that greeted us was unbelievable. I can’t tell you how many people were there, but they stretched into the distance as far as I could see. It was our turn to be overwhelmed. I’ve never seen anything like it as they take pictures and high five everyone and shout and applaud... it’s amazing and we could have stood there for hours, but we have a plane to catch. It’s time to go home.

Quite unexpectedly, Việt Nam has grabbed hold of me and won’t let go. I’m very glad to be coming home, but I’m a little envious of the players who are staying there for few days to explore. Such a colourful, warm and welcoming place, I really hope to go back. As we head out on the main road to the airport, the swarms of scooters gradually disappear and our driver uses his horn less frequently. In my bag next to me is my concert flute, piccolo the Chinese dizi and a new addition which I picked up in the market in Hà Nội, a sáo trúc, something to remember this trip by that speaks my language. It’s dark outside the coach window, but I know that the unchanging landscape of Việt Nam is out there, waiting for my return.

* Gareth Davies has been Principal flute with the London Symphony Orchestra for 17 years. He has played and recorded with many of the great conductors including Gergiev, Sir Colin Davids and Rostropovich. He has recorded a concerto, dedicated to him by Karl Jenkins with EMI, he can be heard in live recordings with LSO as well as many film soundtracks including Star Wars, Harry Potter, Rise of the Guardians and the Twilight saga. He has also written a memoir about The Show Must Go On, which is about the LSO on tour from 1912-2012.

You can read more on his website: