NY Phil in Vietnam Day 2

Symphony magazine’s exclusive coverage of the New York Philharmonic’s visit to Hanoi, Vietnam
Day Two

Symphony Managing Editor Jennifer Melick, reporting from Vietnam, reports on the New York Philharmonic’s visit to Hanoi, part of the orchestra’s Asian Horizons tour led by Music Director Alan Gilbert. The October 14-18 residency includes two concerts at Hanoi Opera House—the first ever by the Philharmonic in Vietnam—with free outdoor simulcast on adjoining plaza open to the public, and master classes for local students at the Vietnam National Academy of Music. Asian Horizons is the orchestra’s first international tour under Gilbert.

(all photos: Jennifer Melick)

Mirror Room
The Mirror Room at the Hanoi Opera House, just prior to the NY Philharmonic’s October 14 press conference

October 14

I am holding a press release, dated October 14, with a headline that reads: Thong Cao Bao Chi: Vietnam Airlines dong to chirc churong trinh hoa nhac New York Philharmonic.
What does it say? Well, they ran out of English-language copies at this afternoon’s press conference, so I don’t have a word-for-word translation, but presumably it states what Le Hoang Dung, the official from Vietnam Airlines, told the gathered media at the press conference: that at 9:30 this morning, Vietnam Airlines made the decision to become a sponsor of the New York Philharmonic’s visit in Hanoi this week, after other local business sponsors pulled out due to the global economic downturn.    
The press event took place in the Mirror Room of the Hanoi Opera House. The surprise sponsor announcement came at the end of what I had expected to be a fairly standard media event, which is how things started out. Alan Gilbert spoke about how thrilled he is to be here, about the feeling of a dream come true, and soaking in the excitement of the “chaotic, kaleidoscopically panoramic experience of going through the streets” here in Hanoi. He said he relished it as a new experience, as opposed to the feeling of “coming home” he and the orchestra experienced in Seoul and Tokyo, where the orchestra has performed before many times. Gilbert hopes that this week’s events will be the start of a friendship with the people and musicians of Vietnam; he voiced his enthusiasm for the “truly universal” music program here (Beethoven’s Symphony No. 7 and Piano Concerto No. 4, with Emanuel Ax, and the Brahms Violin Concerto with Franz Peter Zimmermann). Philharmonic President and Executive Director Zarin Mehta mentioned the “sense of adrenaline and occasion” in a city that is 999 years old, and cracked a joke about his hope that the United States and Vietnamese governments hold enough combined power to prevent it from raining during the two concert broadcasts being shown on screens on the plaza outside the Opera House. (This is still typhoon season.) The U.S. Ambassador to Vietnam, Michael Michalak, mentioned that he couldn’t think of a better time for this event to happen in Hanoi, both because this city is celebrating its 1000th later this year and because it has been fifteen years since the normalization of relations between the U.S. and Vietnam. 

 Inside theater
Interior of the Hanoi Opera House, where the NY Philharmonic will perform

It was not until the very end of the press conference that the sponsorship news was announced. And I suppose, in a year during which almost every arts organization has had to rethink its plans, it is not totally surprising to have last-minute sponsorship issues and a switch in midstream. Vietnam Airlines mentioned that it was able to come in as a sponsor because its business had not been affected greatly in 2008 and 2009, as had been the case with other Vietnamese businesses. (This local sponsor is in addition to the global tour sponsorship by Credit Suisse.) One can only imagine the scrambling behind the scenes that preceded the announcement.

Balconies at the Hanoi Opera House

Questions from the media addressed things such as why the concert program had been altered (the program as originally described included Barber Adagio for Strings and Mozart 41), and why there was no Vietnamese music or contemporary music included. Gilbert carefully answered that he and the orchestra have programmed lots of contemporary music throughout the season, and that repertoire for the concerts here was carefully chosen with a view to many factors, including the small stage at Hanoi Opera House and also that the current program is one he feels the orchestra plays brilliantly. He said he “doesn’t know as much Vietnamese music” as he should but hopes to become more familiar with it, especially since conductor Tetsuji Honna, music director of the Vietnam Symphony Orchestra, is a good friend of his. (I heard a little traditional Vietnamese music this afternoon at the Temple of Literature, where those sorts of performances take place every day. The Temple of Literature is a mix of buildings, courtyards, and gardens, founded in 1070 by Emperor Ly Thanh Tong.)

Courtyard at Hanoi’s Temple of Literature

It should be exciting to hear the full orchestra play on Friday night. And it will be quite a contrast to the Triumph of the Peach Blossoms extravaganza at Hanoi Opera House last night. It’s hard to describe the latter in just a few words, but briefly, it featured 70 dancers in scenes like “The sound of Tay-Son drums frightens the enemy” (scene 5) and “Pink Peach Flowers-shrouded, Thang-Long in reunion” (scene 8). The piece, newly choreographed, chronicles the Vietnamese fight for independence against the Chinese in the late 1700s. It’s a mash-up of styles, with recorded electronic music but also a couple of live musicians (drums and, I believe, a Ken Bau, a traditional wind instrument very like a loud oboe), beautiful silk costumes that swished and swayed, huge pink peach blossoms that became part of the choreography, and danced versions of sword fighting that were pretty exciting. There were a lot of ballet moves, but there were also acrobatic maneuvers like aerials, rolling over other dancers’ backs, and elaborate, dangerous-looking lifts that were reminiscent of moves you might see in championship pairs figure skating.
Temple of Literature
Courtyard at Hanoi’s Temple of Literature
Meanwhile, the New York Philharmonic musicians are preparing to perform, and the staff readies the Opera House for rehearsals and concerts. Tomorrow morning, Gilbert heads over to the Vietnam National Conservatory of Music to work on Beethoven’s Seventh with conducting students there. I’ll be checking that out, and then heading over in the evening to hear a contemporary-music concert (unrelated to the New York Philharmonic’s visit) at the Youth Theater down on Ngo Thi Nham Street.

Next up: Master classes, rehearsals, and performances.