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Symphony moves history forward

Update: March, 29/2010 - 19:30

Harmony: Vietnamese and American artists paint a sound portrait of a bright future.VNSPhoto Phuong Hoa
Sweet sounds: Bui Cong Duy, a famed Vietnamese violinist, performs at the show with his American colleagues. VNS Photo Nguyen Le Hung
Chamber beats:Jeff von der Schmidt and Jan Karlin, executives of Southwest Chamber Music perform with Vietnamese artists.
Ascending Dragon, the biggest cultural exchange between Viet Nam and the US, has created a buzz among the Asian country's music scene. Nguyen Le Hung and Lan Hoang report.

Tran Thanh Thuy, 21, and her friends said they were deeply impressed by a joint performance between artists from Viet Nam and the US at the "Ascending Dragon" concert, held at the Ha Noi Opera House last Friday.

"I never imagined that traditional Vietnamese instruments like the dan bau (a one-string monochord) or the dan da (a lithophone) could go so well with violins and a piano. But they did," she said, adding that the concert really surprised the audience with its smooth performance between artists from the two countries.

"Viet Nam is integrating into the world economy and Vietnamese have to spend almost 10 hours a day at work or study, another eight with their family and the rest is taken up with traffic jams and errands. This concert reminds us that we should take time to relax and entertain ourselves," said one of Thuy's friends.

Like Thuy, most of the concert goers were mesmerised by the combination of sounds. The night was also the world premiere of the four compositions specially written for the performance, including Thang Long; Within Earth, Wood Grows; Pho and Still Here, Still Distant. Each was performed by both American and Vietnamese musicians.

Thang Long (Ascending Dragon), composed by Pham Minh Thanh, was the show-opener and a mood-setter for the whole evening. Inspired by Buddhism, the piece was composed mainly for dan bau and mo (wooden bell), with violins, viola, cello and double bass in the background. With its slow-fast-slow structure, Thang Long let the audience forget about their busy lives outside the walls of the opera house, and brought them to the quiet and peaceful atmosphere of a pagoda, easing them into the following pieces.

French composer Alexandra du Bois then took the show to a more complicated level with Within Earth, Wood Grows, using over 12 different types of instruments for the piece. The composer said that her inspiration always came from her overflowing feelings.

Within Earth, Wood Grows describes the intangible mixing of happiness (as du Bois sees the achievements of the developing Viet Nam) and sadness (when she thinks of Vietnamese children who are still suffering from Agent Orange).

After a short break, the show resumed with Pho (Streets), in which composer Vu Nhat Tan composed a sound portrait of Ha Noi's busy streets. He used the sound flute, oboe, clarinet, bassoon, dan bau, piano, violins, violas, cello and double bass to create the typically noisy atmosphere of Ha Noi, with honks, engine sounds and the indistinct chattering of residents and vendors.

The last piece premiered of the evening was Still Distant, Still Here. "Listeners will not feel anything specific in my new composition, because it is without subject or implication, and also because I am trying to portray a feeling, of floating in infinite air. It is something that is very fragile, yet still very much present," said composer Kurt Rohde, regarding the piece.

"Classical music has never been popular in Viet Nam, so it's understandable that chamber music, the new classical, is not immediately loved by everybody," said Ngo Van Thanh, director of the Viet Nam National Academy of Music (VNAM). "But 10 years ago, rock music was not popular or welcomed either. We think that audiences will eventually open their hearts to the contemporary art of chamber music."


On a Tuesday afternoon two weeks ago, two-time Grammy awards winner the Southwest Chamber Music (SWC), a dauntless American new classical ensemble, spectacularly entered Ha Noi's music scene with Ascending Dragon. More ambitious than anything done before between the United States and our dynamic Asian country, the event promised to revive and satisfy a thirst for knowledge and entertainment, and so much more.

"It's a dream-come-true," said Dr Tran Thu Ha, People's Artist and former director of the VNAM. "We've longed for such an event for years and years."

The dream came true when the ensemble was recommended to the US State Department by Congressman Adam Schiff, representative of California's 29th District. The ensemble then received a highly competitive grant for the project.

"This is perfect timing," Nguyen Hai Anh, deputy director general of the Ministry of Culture, Sports and Tourism's International Co-operation Department, said of the Viet Nam-US musical and cultural exchange programme, adding that it had helped increase understanding between the people of the two countries.

The programme's significance is that artists from the two countries have jointly performed in both nations, particularly in celebration of Ha Noi's 1,000th anniversary, said Anh.

He lauded the US State Department's efforts in creating favourable conditions for this musical and cultural programme, one of the largest after the New York Philharmonic, which performed in Viet Nam last year.

"Viet Nam wishes to promote multi-faceted co-operation with foreign countries, including the US, not only in economics and trade but also in music and culture," Anh said.

"Cultural exchanges between the US and Viet Nam will be brought to new levels, thanks to this performance by the Southwest Chamber Music (SCW) and their Vietnamese counterparts in Ha Noi and HCM City. The musicians have brought not only the music, but also a message of friendship. Their performance will be a highlight in cultural diplomacy between the two nations this year," Anh told Viet Nam News.

The Ascending Dragon Music Festival and Cultural Exchange was a meaningful way to celebrate the 15th anniversary of diplomatic relations between Viet Nam and the US this year, he said.

He also expressed his hope that more leading US orchestras and chambers would come to Viet Nam in the future so artists from the two countries could perform together, learn from each other and provide local audiences with a taste of modern contemporary music from the US.

"Vietnamese artists will also have more chances to perform Vietnamese traditional music before US audiences as well," Anh said.

VNAM is one of the partners of SWC, who organised the event in Viet Nam. The project also received help from the Ha Noi Opera House, the HCM City Conservatory of Music, the US Embassy in Ha Noi and the US Consulate in HCM City.

Over the last three weeks, the exchange brought 19 American musicians to Viet Nam. Together with 19 Vietnamese colleagues, they performed four world premieres and four Asian premieres in five shows in Viet Nam. Although the exchange is not yet over, the ensemble departed the country on Wednesday, leaving the Vietnamese classical music community craving more.

Ascending Dragon will continue with its planned activities from April 14 to May 4 when it brings 19 Vietnamese artists to the US for the remaining five shows in various venues in Los Angeles.

During its first leg in Los Angeles, the ensemble will partner up with the Armory Center for the Arts, the Colburn School, Drucker Institute at the Claremont Graduate University, Riordan Volunteer Leadership Development Program, Cal Tech, Pacific Asia Museum, LA and Pasadena Unified School Districts and Villa Aurora.

"Our goal is to demonstrate that Viet Nam is a country and not a war," said SWC Founding Artistic Director Jeff von der Schmidt. "There are still strong and passionate emotions for me about this Southeast Asian country.

"We know that together with our musical friends in Viet Nam, we will all point the way to a better world. Maybe some will hear what we say and we'll be a living example of how to create a better future out of a complicated past," he said.

Wise friends

"An equally important component of this cultural exchange, aside from the musical concerts, is education," said Jan Karlin, Founding Executive Director of SWC.

One of the US State Department's goals in supporting SWC with this highly competitive grant is to identify and encourage a new generation of emerging cultural leaders in Viet Nam. During the exchange, Cultural Leadership Forums will involve all participants in workshops on "arts administration, leadership and creativity" to help identify the best practices and ways in which cultural leadership can be nurtured and facilitated. Hosted business community forums in both countries will encourage corporate and arts partnerships. These programmes will be in collaboration with the US Embassy in Ha Noi, the US Consulate in HCM City, the Drucker Institute at Claremont Graduate University, and the Riordan Volunteer Leadership Development Programme in Los Angeles.

"Ascending Dragon is an opportunity for SWC to do what only we can do – provide an exciting new music festival in two countries and use new creativity to help build capacity and leadership skills in the arts. In preparatory meetings in Ha Noi in March 2009, I was struck by the enthusiasm of all of the potential participants to have us help them build their arts administrative skills," said Karlin.

"We have learned how to build a concert series, access corporate funding, provide educational activities and community events and learn about all of the necessary structures. We are very appreciative of the fact that this project is a new model of cultural exchange, not just coming through town on a tour with standard repertory and master classes. Ascending Dragon provides dialogue, learning and capacity building through the celebration of new American and Vietnamese creativity," said Dr Ta Quang Dong, teaching staff of VNAM.

"The problem that we are facing, and which our American friends have the solution to, is the lack of promotion for the arts. Since Vietnamese artists are still living on the State's budget, we don't have to care much about selling our own products. But as the socialisation process and further integration are inevitable, we have no choice but to find ways to bring our music to the audience. We've acquired so much valuable knowledge from these workshops," said VNAM director Thanh.

The future

"During rehearsals, we found that the so-called gap between Vietnamese and American artists was not about skills. Actually, there's hardly any gap at all. We're just very different in our mindsets," said Jeff von der Schmidt.

"We find an amazing balance in Vietnamese music. Vietnamese musicians have used elements that are not supposed to go with each other to create such a well-balanced combination," Jeff said.

The Ascending Dragon has not yet come to an end, but it has obviously created a balanced harmony out of the two nations' artists, who were supposed to be incongruous and awkward together. Some have already called each other friends-for-life. The exchange has not been confirmed as a recurring event, but plans for personal comeback trips are already being made, said Thanh.

VNAM has also planned to send its professors to America to attend short courses on arts administration, he said. — VNS

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