Category Archives: Strings

Maestro Wes Kenney in Vietnam

Our Vietnam Experience, Entry #10

 

Director of Orchestras Wes Kenney and Violin Professor Leslie Stewart are spending ten days over break in Vietnam with the Vietnam National Symphony Orchestra and at the National Music Academy. These entries document their unique and exciting experience!

January 5, 2018

Concert Day. We leave the hotel at 8 a.m. for a 9 a.m. rehearsal. There is a huge poster outside the opera house with Do Phuong Nhi and my photos on it. We are early so there are very few people around, but fortunately we know the way to the dressing room area and manage to claim one of them.

I wander onto the stage, which is still being put together, as well as the shell being put up. The stage is huge, very much large enough for an opera turntable for sets when a theatrical performance is presented. The orchestra only takes up about half of the space, with the front half extended in front of the proscenium (mostly the strings.) It is clear, the pit must be huge and they’ve had Puccini sized orchestras of about 65 down there. That would be something to see!

By 9 a.m. the shell is up, and the rehearsal gets started about 9:15. One player is missing because of a family emergency, but fortunately they are only a few minutes late. The Copland and the concerto go relatively smoothly. Balances are better than I anticipated although it seems that the brass sometimes tends to overplay the space. We get to go over a few things in the Dvorak and get through the entire symphony just as time expires. I thank the orchestra for their work and they applaud. Eight rehearsals down and only the performance is left!

Lan, Thang, Nhi, Leslie, and I are hosted for lunch at a western styled steakhouse by Honna the VNSO’s music director and his significant other, the assistant concertmaster of the orchestra and also a gracious host. It is once again a wonderful and large meal that ends when the ACM pulls out some Durian cookies for an ending sweet. Durian is a somewhat controversial crop stemming from its unique aroma. As the Vietnamese say, the fruit “smells like hell, but tastes like heaven.” Lan and Nhi really like Durian, but Thang says it should be eaten in the bathroom…! The smell is so strong that there are many hotels that have banned the fruit from their premises. I brave the aroma (which doesn’t seem all that bad) and try a couple of cookies. To me, they are quite good — a new taste treat.

We are returned to the hotel by the VNSO driver for an afternoon of rest before returning to the Italian restaurant we dined at the previous Monday. A little pasta and salad (and we make sure our hosts understand it should only be a small amount) seems to be a great way to get the evening started. We walk the two blocks to the hall, braving the traffic and crowds to get to the musicians entrance. Lan and Thang make sure that the guest artist and conductor manage safe passage, something more challenging for a pedestrian than any westerner could imagine. Lan plays social butterfly with well wishers in front of the hall, eventually finding her way back stage with the rest of my clothing that she insisted on carrying. The humidity concerns me that I might go through several changes of clothes on this evening. I certainly have come prepared with extra undershirts and a hair blower, all of which get used during this event.

The hallways are abuzz with excitement and indeed they are expecting a full house. At shortly after 8 p.m., the orchestra takes the stage en mass, Lan tunes up the ensemble, and I come out for the Copland. I’d been told that going to a concert in Vietnam was similar to China and that the crowds were boisterous and more like a sporting event. However, other than the spontaneous applause after Buckaroo Holiday, it was clear that everyone had truly come to listen to their orchestra with quiet attention. The Copland was well received from the capacity audience. Nhi then took the stage and wowed the house with her spirit and prowess on the Bruch. The audience gave her four curtain calls and she was given two huge bouquets of flowers.

At intermission, the hall outside the dressing rooms is filled with family and friends of Nhi, Lan, and Thang. This includes Honna-san who stops by to tell me the Copland was terrific. As photos are being taken in the hallway, I towel off, blow-dry my hair into some semblance of neatness, and get my game face on for the 2nd half. Their librarians are efficient in taking scores to put on my stand and returning the first half, always being gracious in doing so. Everyone speaks a little bit of English, so communication has always been fairly easy during the concert process.

The Dvorak is ready to roll and the orchestra plays as if they are on a mission to prove that this is a piece they intend to play for years to come. The audience again breaks into applause after the first movement. The pastoral second movement is met with quiet reflection in the audience, save for one really loud sneeze out of the house. The furiant/scherzo is played with great energy and one little quirk I threw into the final third goes off without a hitch. The last movement, which had been the albatross for the strings, is played with élan, including the frenetic finale that the cellos set at a blistering pace. The performance produces five curtain calls and I’m told later that the chanting style applause seemed to indicate that they wanted to hear the finale again, something that was lost on me…still, we left them wanting more.

The orchestra members greet me back stage with smiles and many kind words. It seems that we’ve made some great music together and they express their appreciation. Again, the hallway is overrun with people all seeming to want to meet an American conductor, even if his hair looks like he just stepped out of the shower. The after photos with me in my white tie and tails make me look like someone from the “roaring twenties” with slicked down hair, but admittedly, Brylcreem was never my thing. (See the climax to The Sting if you miss the reference).

We eventually work our way back to the Italian restaurant where we toast with wine, pizza, pasta, salad, and good cheer the success of the evening. Around the table are Executive Director Mr. Hong, Assistant Conductor Ling, Thang, Lan, Nhi, Music Director Honna, and a few others. Honna tells me that I remind him of the Czech conductor Zdenek Macal, which I take as a great compliment. Later I would learn that he wants me back as soon as possible, again something that I am thrilled to hear. However, change is in the future for this orchestra. On a positive note, there is a new rehearsal space that is to open soon. But, there is also word another orchestra is soon to start up that may bring more players from outside of Vietnam. It is not clear what this development means for the VNSO as qualified players are not easy to find and they will be losing a few of their own to this new ensemble. We can only wait and see what happens as the future unfolds.

After a couple of hours of revelry we are returned to the hotel for some rest and recouping. Our journey is far from over and we still have more of North Vietnam to explore!


Our Vietnam Experience, Entry #9

 

Director of Orchestras Wes Kenney and Violin Professor Leslie Stewart are spending ten days over break in Vietnam with the Vietnam National Symphony Orchestra and at the National Music Academy. These entries document their unique and exciting experience!

January 4, 2018

It is the day before the concert and there is still much work to be done, primarily on the Dvorak Symphony. We’ve arranged to get to the rehearsal hall by 11:30 a.m., so we can meet up with one of our summer M.M.E. in conducting students who is currently teaching in Myanmar, and has completed one summer and one semester on-line in our program thus far. Lee Pophal is on break from his job and is touring Vietnam with his sister. He makes arrangements to meet us for lunch that day and Thang and Lan take us to another Thai place. They order a few appetizers and a hotpot for the table to share. A hotpot is a popular Asian dish where a chicken broth is heated then brought to the table and placed on a heating element of some sort. When the broth is at a boil, meats, seafood, noodles, and vegetables are placed in the pot for quick cooking and then served. It is about as fresh a dish as one can get, and again, it is a fulfilling meal and Lan loves to play “cook,” both in terms of adding the various food elements, then serving it up.

During lunch, we talk about the political situation in Myanmar (some parts of the country are dangerous), but Lee says he is absolutely safe where he is teaching, which is at an American school. Lan and Thang are a bit quiet, perhaps because of the fluid English that is being spoken at the table. We spoke to Lee about other students in our program, or recently graduated, who are also teaching at American schools around the world.

After lunch we head back to the hall, but not before seeing some interesting signs of business such as “Pho Nho!,” and “Huy pei nah?” Maybe this is legit language, or maybe someone is having fun with double entendres! On arrival, we get the strings going on the finale to the Dvorak 6th as the rest of the orchestra shuffles in. The personnel manager informs me that the oboes and the pianist will be late. This is frustrating since the rehearsal was moved to the afternoon on their account. Fortunately the oboes are only 10 minutes late, but the pianist never shows up for the Copland. In my mind the rehearsal is to go to 5 p.m., since the original schedule was for 3.5 hours. However, after we are finished with the concerto, I’m told the rehearsal is to end at 4:30 and now we do not have time to run everything. Tomorrow’s AM dress rehearsal at the opera house would have to suffice. All one can do is take a deep breath and hope we are all ready to focus and run through the full program in the three hours we have left.

Over the course of the week, we have been collecting “take-away” leftovers in our hotel fridge. Lan looks exhausted at the end of rehearsal, so we tell her to please take the night off and be with her family and we will fend for ourselves. We have been eating so much during the week that the thought of quietly nibbling on leftovers in our room seems quite palatable. The next day will be an early one to the opera house and then a long day ending with a party after the concert, so getting to sleep early seems to be the best plan.

Our driver returns us to the Sheraton. I’m following along on my iPhone Map app. The hotel is situated on an inlet on the east side of Westlake. It appears that both the opera house and the rehearsal hall are the same distance to the south. However, since the rehearsal hall is more west, we always travel up and around the top of the lake then south. The opera house is closer to the downtown area and more east, so then we go the opposite direction. In either direction, there is always something new to see. A beautiful garden with multicolored flowers, a set of partially constructed condos that appear to have been abandoned as they have no windows, and an amusement park with a large ferris wheel and roller coaster that sits dormant during this time of year.

There is a long stretch of road where a portion of it is being lowered about 15 or 20 feet to the level of the businesses on either side. This is to help increase the number of lanes and help the flow of traffic. The single lane road going south created by the construction is home to a businesses ranging from Land Rover dealers to very small open air markets where meat is set out for people to peruse. Of course, motorbikes weave around sometimes passing on the right, sometimes passing in the wrong direction on the left. For us westerners often disconcerting, for the people who live there, just another day in Hanoi.


Our Vietnam Experience, Entry #8

 

Director of Orchestras Wes Kenney and Violin Professor Leslie Stewart are spending ten days over break in Vietnam with the Vietnam National Symphony Orchestra and at the National Music Academy. These entries document their unique and exciting experience!

January 3, 2018

Another morning rehearsal this time back on the Copland which was a bit rusty from the weekend’s activities. The music came back soon enough allowing us to go through the entire piece and then the concerto. The Dvorak was more challenging and during the break, the personnel manager came to me and told be that because of exams at the Academy of Music, two oboes and the pianist could not make tomorrow AM’s rehearsal. Thus he asked me if starting at 1:30 would be adequate. Then the assistant concertmaster asked if we could get more string section rehearsal on the last movement. So within the span of ten minutes, we went from a scheduled AM rehearsal for the next day to a 1 PM string sectional and a 1:30 full rehearsal in concert order. It was amazing that the orchestra was able make this change the day before, but they did, and without apparent complaint. Flexibility is a required trait for the musicians, and even with other jobs, they make their complicated lives work. What was NOT communicated to me was that in the wheeling dealing of scheduling, I had lost 30 minutes of rehearsal from 3.5 hours in the morning to only 3 hours in the afternoon. Something that would cause consternation the next day.

When rehearsal was over, we headed to a traditional Vietnamese restaurant where the dishes came from several regions in the country. This included noodle dishes, dishes wrapped in rice paper (Lan again did the assembly), a type of fried dish that resembled a quesadilla, but done with rice paper, and then finally a fruit concoction that you mixed in a glass then added ice. All wonderful, tasty treats and all very filling.

We returned to our hotel for some rest before being picked up to go to one of the most successful restaurants in Vietnam, a Japanese pizza house called For P’s and Pizza. The monogram “P’s” being short for peace. Lan had managed to get the last table available that night, but in fact should have made a reservation a month ago. The first of these was in Japan, but now there are a several throughout Vietnam and they are never without business. This is for good reason, the pizza is some of the best we’ve ever tasted. Semi-chewy crust, they make their own cheese, and the presentations are extremely intriguing. Lan ordered several pies. One had a soft camembert cheese that was then spread over the rest of the pizza slices. My favorite was duck, pear, and blue cheese. Thang pointed out that the pizza is always cut for the number at the table. We had six which is not unusual for pizza slices, but they can artfully do 5 and 7 as well. Even after several slices we ended with a crab pasta with a creamy peanut type of sauce and then Tiramisu (a very popular dessert in the area) for final treat.

The restaurant was located in the downtown area near the opera house. There are stores lining the streets, some being the upscale names you see in Beverly Hills, Prada, Louis Vuitton, Chanel, Dior. It is clear that someone is spending money in this country. There are also many modern and gleaming hotels sprinkled throughout city. Pan Pacific, Intercontinental, boutique hotels, and of course a Hilton right next to the opera house…think about that one.

In walking back to the car, we passed one of the oldest ice cream stores in the city dating  back to 1958. It looked tempting, but our stomaches said no. Tomorrow would be the final rehearsal in the music building before the orchestra moved to the opera house.


Vietnamese National Symphony Motorcycles

Our Vietnam Experience, Entry #7

 

Director of Orchestras Wes Kenney and Violin Professor Leslie Stewart are spending ten days over break in Vietnam with the Vietnam National Symphony Orchestra and at the National Music Academy. These entries document their unique and exciting experience!

January 2, 2018

How the Vietnamese National Symphony gets to work…

After three days off from this concert repertoire, it is time to renew our preparations for the performance on Friday. This is one of the hardest working orchestras that Leslie and I have ever witnessed. After the two double rehearsals on my concert repertoire last Thursday and Friday, the VNSO had rehearsals on Saturday, Sunday, and Monday for Mondays New Year’s Night performance at the opera house. They had Tuesday morning off and then start again this afternoon with me. They will rehearse every day this week, perform on Friday, then maybe get a day off (depending on who you talk to) before starting again. I asked Thang when he thought the orchestra would get a break next, he thought the 18th of January!!!

Lan brings her daughter and violin soloist Nhi to our hotel for a rehearsal. The concerto has now been with Nhi for a couple of years and she has rethought much of her approach to the famous work. We then head out for lunch at a ramen place. Certainly Leslie and I have had ramen before, but not like this! The broth was thick, the noodles heavy, and quite filling. After lunch we pick up our ride to the hall where we have the first rehearsal on the Bruch violin concerto. The VNSO has added a new first violin, Leslie Stewart Kenney! On Sunday at the concert I noticed there were twelve first violins in the section and mentioned to Lan that we had not had more than nine at any rehearsal thus far. The conversation evolved on the way back to the hotel as far as availability of violins and suddenly, Leslie is part of the section! At the beginning of today’s rehearsal, she is introduced to the orchestra and now we have ten firsts.

We run the Bruch concerto with Nhi and the familiarity of the work helps the orchestra pull the music together quickly. Every orchestra has its own personality, often geared to the hall they play in. We have been rehearsing in a smallish rehearsal hall, but having heard the orchestra onstage over the weekend helps. The Dvorak is also coming along, but it is a new piece to the orchestra, so there is much to teach them in terms of the style of the great Czech composer vs. the sound and music of Aaron Copland. It is a long rehearsal, lasting until 4:30.

After rehearsal, we gather up Nhi and head to a Chinese restaurant for some roast duck and many other dishes. Once again, we are whisked into a elegant private room and are waited attentively by a very friendly staff. We eat until be are fully stuffed – again. Our Wednesday rehearsal will be in the morning so an early night is a welcome one.

~ Submitted by Wes Kenney, Director of Orchestras

I show up to the rehearsal planning to sit last chair in the first violin section, but Lan insists that I sit on the fourth stand (out of five). My stand partner is a young man in his mid-twenties who joined the orchestra just a few years ago. He is extremely attentive to every detail in the music and marks all bowing changes as soon as they are made. It is a great pleasure to sit next to someone who is as serious as I am about playing in orchestra – and I feel that in spite of all of our differences (age, gender, ethnicity) we have an immediate bond.

~ Submitted by Leslie Stewart, Violin Professor


Wes Kenny and Leslie Stewart in Vietnam

Our Vietnam Experience, Entry #6

 

Director of Orchestras Wes Kenney and Violin Professor Leslie Stewart are spending ten days over break in Vietnam with the Vietnam National Symphony Orchestra and at the National Music Academy. These entries document their unique and exciting experience!

January 1, 2018

Happy New Year! For western tastes there will be no parades or football this year. Instead we use the day to continue to recover from our colds and take a walk alongside the Westlake. Many businesses are open on this day such as laundry and convenience stores. Others are closed (pharmacies and banks). Cafes and coffee houses are certainly doing an excellent business. Restaurants the same. It appears that just about anyone can open up a business by hanging out “a shingle.” They range from those selling wares off the back of a bicycle, to barbers setting up shop in the median of a highway to give haircuts, to high-rise department stores and malls. This is also true of restaurants which range as small as a pot on a fire on the street, to family-style Pho hangouts where one or two community tables exist, to fast-food restaurants (both Vietnamese and other international fare including McDonalds and Kentucky Fried Chicken), specialty restaurants which are the current rage in town, to high end spots such as the one at the top of the Intercontinental Hotel. Every gradation in-between is also available, you just need to smell and look.

This is the first time we have ventured any distance on foot and we discover there are often no sidewalks to get us out of the street, so cars and motorbikes zoom by, sometimes close enough to feel their breeze and vibration. We manage to get to an ATM, buy some ice cream on the street, and return without mishap.

The weather has been a constant gray, in fact, we have not seen any sunlight since our arrival. There has been light rain at times, otherwise from morning to evening, the look almost never changes. This is typical of this time of year and it gives many parts of the city a mysterious look. Thang has commented on how projects are started and slowed or abandoned. Hanoi is building high-rise roadways and subways and there are cranes and scaffolding covered in fog almost everywhere you turn your gaze.

There were big crowds in the central Hanoi area with streets blocked off for large celebrations. The street lighting is amazing with many giving the look of fireworks. This will continue throughout the day and we are taken by Thang and Lan to dinner near the Hanoi Opera House before attending the Vietnam National Symphony’s New Year’s Night Concert. As we pass by the opera house, they are removing scaffolding in front that was used for an outdoor concert from the previous evening. We park a block away and go into Pellini’s – a lovely Italian restaurant with excellent food and drink. This is a regular hangout for musicians from the VNSO, thus Thang and Lan know the staff very well and we are put upstairs at a window table.

We next head to the opera house, a smaller version of the Paris Opera, which the building is modeled after. This is just one instance of the French influence left after that country’s departure (certainly the food scene is another!). The building opened in 1911 and has seen many events since that time, both musical and political. Boxes line the house in tiered array and one can still feel the opulence in the heavy wooden and padded seats, marble that surrounds the lobby, and chandeliers hanging from the ceiling. There are large gathering rooms as well, several lined with mirrors. In one corner of the mirrored glass is a reminder of the unrest found so much in the history of this country, a bullet hole!

Tonight is a special concert that will feature the orchestra, four soloists, five Vietnamese composers, and will be fully televised. The stage is decked-out with flowers and a large screen at the back announcing each piece, a classy technological touch. The concert is well received and ranges from Shostakovich Festival Overture (with the extra brass!) to the finale of Beethoven Symphony No. 5 to O Sole Mio. Leslie and I very much enjoyed the “Vietnamese Pizzicato” work. Honna, their Japanese music director, conducted with elegance throughout and the orchestra sounded quite good on the amplified stage. Microphones were used only for this concert because of the broadcast, but as I was informed, will not be used for regular concerts, such as mine coming up.

After the concert we head back to the car only to run into Maestro Honna and several musicians headed to Pellini’s for an after concert meal that went to 2 a.m. We passed on this affair and went back to the room…there will be a rehearsal the next afternoon!


Our Vietnam Experience, Entry #5

 

Director of Orchestras Wes Kenney and Violin Professor Leslie Stewart are spending ten days over break in Vietnam with the Vietnam National Symphony Orchestra and at the National Music Academy. These entries document their unique and exciting experience!

December 31, 2017

After Leslie has Pho and I opt for an omelet for breakfast, we are picked up by Lan and Thang and driven an hour out of town. Because it is Sunday and a three day weekend, the traffic is much lighter than the beehive experience we’ve had thus far. However, it also means people are moving faster and one of the things we observe is that stopping only happens when you are forced to stop, meaning you’ll hit something if you don’t. Right of way belongs to the individual. Yes there are crosswalks on the streets, but they don’t mean much for the intrepid pedestrian moving from one side to the other. It seems in this country the punch line to “why did the chicken cross the road?” is “for the thrill of it.”

Still after awhile we find ourselves leaving the skyscrapers that are even on the outskirts of Hanoi and heading south on a Freeway and out into the country. We see crops, rice paddy fields, and other flora. We also see police waving down speeding vehicle (100 kilometers per hour – about 65 mph – is max) We are headed to the farm owned by Lan’s sister Ha and her husband Pham.

To be taken out to meet the full family is an honor in Vietnam. After leaving the highway, we drive a few kilometers east and turn down a road where an open gate and archway lead us into a courtyard where people are sweeping, dogs are barking, and a late model BMW is parked.

Pham is an international banker and travels much. He and Ha bought this farm eleven years ago as an investment. There are fruit orchards, chickens, ducks, and a wine cellar that seems to be abandoned at the moment. We meet in short order Ha, Pham, Lan’s father, Pham’s father, Ha’s daughter, son-in law, and three-month old child. We sit down, drink some tea, eat some snacks, walk around the buildings a bit, then sit down for a “country” lunch of Asian chicken salad, sausages, herbs, soup, and finally a hot-pot. There is also red wine, lots of red wine. Once again, it is a huge amount of food and we are offered a place to nap afterwards for an hour. After that we tour the farm where we see some huge examples of exotic fruits (see the photograph of Ha holding her prizes).

After the walk around, we head back to town (although a golf course near by would have been fun to look at), swing by Lan and Thang’s apartment to pick up Long, and then stop at a multi-story mall for coffee and a conversation about orchestras. We then head upstairs for a Korean barbecue dinner that involves thin meat cooked on an air-heated grill right in our own private dining room (see photo of Lan cooking). The meat is then wrapped in lettuce with other herbs, condiments and vegetables before being dipped in a sauce and eaten by hand. It is another food discovery of which there have been many on this trip. As someone at the high-rise dinner has pointed out, in Hanoi sight-seeing is not the primary reason to visit, but the food is!

We do a bit of shopping in the very elegant stores. There are some good deals to be had, but for the most part, many of the items are very expensive. One must learn to calculate the costs quickly. 1 US Dollar = 22.000 VND. Thus a 500.000 VND bill is nothing to get excited about…$45. We saw a leather bag for 11.000.000 or $484 US. Many of the clothes were in the same range. Wow!

We finally head back to our hotel – it is New Year’s Eve – knowing that we have some French champagne in the fridge to toast at midnight. Long before anyone in the west would be doing so. Midnight Jan. 1 in Hanoi is 10 a.m., Dec. 31 MST in Fort Collins. Happy New Year!

~ Submitted by Wes Kenney, Director of Orchestras


Our Vietnam Experience, Entry #4

 

Director of Orchestras Wes Kenney and Violin Professor Leslie Stewart are spending ten days over break in Vietnam with the Vietnam National Symphony Orchestra and at the National Music Academy. These entries document their unique and exciting experience!

December 30, 2017

Catching any kind of a bug on an international trip is not fun, but compound that with two days of double rehearsals in humidity, and a day off was needed to get back on the mend. Thus most of Saturday was spent inside the hotel.

The Hanoi Sheraton seems like a grande old dame with rather square architecture augmented with asian touches, but in fact built in 2003. The marble shines and the staff is extremely friendly and attentive. There is an elegance, though it does show some wear and tear from over the years. The fixtures in the room appear to be original and show a bit of their age. Still our room is lovely, comfortable, and generally quiet.

Most important is that the hotel supports the Vietnamese National Symphony Orchestra in trade. The lobby is decked out at this time of year for the holidays and they are interesting and sometime downright elaborate (see the full sized saxophone-playing Santa Claus and the cookie-made Christmas tree).

There are a few interesting quirks. A sign on the second floor main lobby tells you that to get to the pool, spa, and tennis court, go up to the fourth floor (the floor our room is on). The signs take you down the fourth floor corridor to another door that leads outside to a roof-top tennis court and a view of the hotel courtyard. You then walk down that patio to a side building (no sign now) that you have to walk into, then take another elevator down to the first floor where the pool and spa await…or you can walk outside from the lobby all the way around towards the lake and access the pool and spa that way. Hmmm…

Even though we are quite a ways from home, work there does not cease. So score preparation for upcoming concerts, administrative work, and other business is always beckoning. Some of our day is spent concentrating on that part of our lives.

A meeting with Nhi, my soloist, is cancelled because she is now running fever, so Thang comes over and takes us to dinner at an Italian restaurant on the opposite lake shore from our hotel. It is clear that many families enjoy going out to eat as no matter where we go, children with young parents are present. We take a corner table with a view (thanks to some wheeling and dealing by Thang) and then enjoy and excellent meal of salad, pizza, and pasta.

Afterwards, Thang drives us over to the area where the presidential palace is, a large conference center, and Ho Chi Minh’s tomb. The story is that Ho Chi Minh did not want a large tomb as an edifice, but the government felt otherwise. They are all magnificent.

That seemed to be enough for the day, so back to the hotel for more rest before a big sight-seeing day!

~ Submitted by Wes Kenney, Director of Orchestras


Our Vietnam Experience, Entry #3

 

Director of Orchestras Wes Kenney and Violin Professor Leslie Stewart, who is also the director of CSU’s Master of Music, Music Education Conducting Specialization, are spending ten days over break in Vietnam with the Vietnam National Symphony Orchestra and at the National Music Academy. These entries document their unique and exciting experience!

December 29, 2017

The day began the same as the previous day with another international breakfast in the hotel and then the 30 minute drive to rehearsal. On the way to the hall, we pass several Starbucks, Coffee Beans, and a chain called Highlands Coffee that is one of the locals favorites. Coffee houses are ubiquitous in this city and Vietnamese coffee is thick and strong. They drink it with warmed heated sweet milk (might be what we consider condensed) and it is delicious. Tea with honey and lime is another regular warm drink. A coffee house is next door to the rehearsal space and we end up there during the breaks each day.

There are construction projects in various stages everywhere in the city. Something we saw in South Vietnam three years earlier were three to five story buildings that were no wider than the storefront business they were built above. This is true here, but it is not as pervasive. Because our hotel is situated near Westlake – the largest lake in the city – we see many upscale apartment complexes lined up along its shore. In this way, parts of Hanoi reflect many waterside resort communities when looking to the sky. But at their base, the traffic reminds us that we are very much in a busy Asian metropolis.

Today’s rehearsal plan is the same as yesterday’s, Copland in the AM and Dvorak in the PM. Just before rehearsal begins, the personnel manager of the orchestra comes to me and gives me a list of people who will be late or missing that day, something that he did the previous day and will do later in the afternoon. As a conductor, one can only smile and say thank you for the information and make the best of it. It also gives me the idea that by the last half hour of rehearsal we could run the entire Copland. The piece is coming along and there is still all of next week’s rehearsals to refine the performance.

Lunch that day is at Lan and Thang’s apartment and they are gracious hosts. We take a five minute walk to get there (although Lan did offer to take me on her motor scooter…hmmm). Nhi is there and we chat while waiting for Thang and Leslie to arrive back from her morning activity which was to teach a conducting masterclass. The lunch is extensive and wonderful! It is hard to believe that Lan manages to be a violinist, mother, shopper, cook, housekeeper, gracious host, and I’m sure many other things and always does so with a smile. After lunch we retire to the front room and take a 30 minute nap before heading back to rehearsal.

The Dvorak is up for the afternoon and we spend quite a bit of time that day discussing articulations and how to make them different from the Copland. In this way we start infusing more elegance into their sound. They take this information and after awhile the idea begins to manifest itself in line and sustained color. Again, the communication can be slow going, but patience and continuous energy on my part seems to go a long way. We end with a run through of the recap and coda of the Finale and call it a day.

Rather than heading back to the hotel, we return to Thang and Lan’s place to clean up, a quick nap, then head for a special dinner on the 62nd floor of an office building. The top ten floors of this tower is an intercontinental hotel, and it’s splendor and views are breathtaking. We have Japanese BBQ (think Benihana, only better) that has several courses ending in a Kobe beef steak. It is an extraordinary experience to say the least. We head back to the hotel afterwards and plan to stay in our hotel room most of the next day just to recover.

~ Submitted by Wes Kenney, Director of Orchestras

I spend the morning with three conducting students at the Vietnam National Academy of Music. Two are instrumental conducting majors, the third is a choral conductor. I start with the most experienced student, who is in his junior year, and has prepared the “Egmont” Overture by Beethoven and Liszt’s “Les Preludes.” Two staff pianists are seated together at the piano in front of him and are doing their best to approximate a full orchestra.

This student obviously knows both scores quite well, but his range of baton technique is rather limited. I try to explain that if he does not show more contrasts in the music (whether they be in articulation or dynamics), musicians will stop looking at him and will only respond (or not!) to what they see written in the music. He politely tries to imitate me but his habits are so ingrained that it is difficult for him to do anything differently.

However, when he sees me work with the second student on the slow movement of Mozart’s 40th Symphony, it seems that a “light bulb goes off.” He not only helps translate my words into Vietnamese for this student, but also shows him how to make a difference between conducting with lightness or heaviness. I also point out ways in which this student can mark his score so that these dynamic differences do not “surprise” him.

The 3rd student brings in a small choir of her friends to sing a piece by Eric Whitacre. She is quite earnest and asks intelligent questions about how to show various entrances. I suggest using her left hand for some of these cues and she is able to implement this technique immediately.

All of the students are eager to hear about our graduate conducting program at Colorado State University, so I give them brochures. The first student is anxious to meet Wes, so I offer to introduce them at the end of this afternoon’s rehearsal with the VNSO.

In the afternoon, Ling (who played solo Bach for me yesterday) plays first violin in a string quartet, which has prepared music by Mozart, Haydn, and Borodin. This group of enthusiastic and talented young women has been together for at least six months, and obviously enjoys playing together. There is almost no language barrier as they quickly respond to all of my suggestions with eagerness. They are used to teasing each other as well as laughing at themselves and it is a total joy to work with them.

~ Submitted by Leslie Stewart, Violin Professor, Director of Master of Music, Music Education Conducting Specialization


Our Vietnam Experience, Entry #2

 

Director of Orchestras Wes Kenney and Violin Professor Leslie Stewart are spending ten days over break in Vietnam with the Vietnam National Symphony Orchestra and at the National Music Academy. These entries document their unique and exciting experience!

December 28, 2017

The Sheraton Hanoi serves an international clientele and the breakfast in the lobby restaurant shows it. There are stations for Korean, Japanese, Chinese, plus western tastes. The chef makes great omelets at the egg station, there are unusual fruits, lots of pastries, and of course pho, the traditional Vietnamese soup with vegetables. It seems like a fitting start to our ten days in this country for we will discover that one of the best parts about it is the food. This will be demonstrated in ample amounts every time we sit down for a meal with people.

Today’s schedule would be two rehearsals with the Vietnam National Symphony Orchestra (VNSO) while Leslie gives a masterclass with violin students of Thang’s at the Academy. We are picked up by a driver who deals with the traffic to the rehearsal hall (a 30 minute drive), with plenty of time to spare before the 9-11:30 morning rehearsal. In the previous evening, Lan and Thang have briefed me on the orchestra members backgrounds. These are well-trained musicians who play a lot, but also have regular jobs outside of the orchestra to help them make a living. Some are teachers, some work in restaurants. There are even some who have advanced degrees in other professions such as architecture and work in that field as well. The fact that the orchestra rehearses during the daytime is amazing as it would seem to make holding down another job challenging. Somehow these people make it work.

The morning rehearsal is devoted to the Four Dance Episodes from Rodeo by Copland. Buckaroo Holiday is a rhythmically challenging piece for any orchestra – and it takes awhile for the music to line up – but after an hour or so, the orchestra begins to understand how the piece goes and seems to be enjoying playing something American. After a 20 minute break, we zero in on Hoedown, the Corral Nocturne, and finally Saturday Night Waltz. These people have a lot of talent, and although sometimes the communication is slow (many of them understand English, but mostly what I say gets translated in Vietnamese), progress is being made.

Lunch is a gathering at a fish restaurant with the music director of the VNSO, who is in town to conduct a New Years Day concert, the executive director, the assistant concertmaster, Leslie, Thang, and Lan. It is a lively affair with wonderful food and soups. Thang takes great care in introducing me to fish sauce, and after copious amounts of lime squeezed into it, it adds a wonderful pungent taste to the other dishes. It is a huge amount of food (something typical of all the meals we will have)!

The afternoon is filled with a second rehearsal devoted to the Dvorak 6th symphony. The VNSO has played neither the Copland nor the Dvorak, but are certainly game in learning new works. We manage to get through all four movements so they have an idea of the flow and that is it for day. The members scurry off, some commenting that their heads have been filled with a LOT of new information and sounds. Lan tells me they are definitely enjoying themselves.

Many years ago I read a James Bond novel where some of the action takes place in Saratoga, New York during the summer. I recall how he showered four or five times in one day, changing his clothing each time. After the first half of the rehearsal, Lan commented to me how wet I looked. Coming from a dry Colorado climate to 65-70% humidity takes some getting used to. Needless to say, before dinner, I was quick to take a shower and change clothes, a pattern that will repeat itself no doubt through the rest of our stay.

~ Submitted by Wes Kenney, Director of Orchestras at CSU

The more time I spend with Thang, the more I realize how much the two of us have in common. Both of us teach violin to students of all ages in addition to our class at the university – and both of us have studios that seem to attract families from a particular culture. In my case in Ft. Collins, most of my home studio students are Chinese – either from the mainland, or Taiwan, or Hong Kong. In Thang’s case, his studio is almost entirely Japanese.

Thang teaches only half-hour lessons to each of his 40 students each week and lets them know that he will tell them something “only once,” so they better be paying attention! The results are amazing – all of the students I work with have tremendous concentration and have achieved incredible progress in a very short time.

The first is a 10-year-old boy who only started the violin three years ago. He plays Kreisler’s “Praeludium and Allegro” for me with ease and flair. (I find out later that he has won 1st place in his age category at a recent competition in Thailand). I suggest using more bow in a few places, making more dynamic contrasts here and there, and point out sections where he can stop his bow so the music will “breathe” more between phrases. He happily complies.

The second student is even younger – an 8 year-old girl who only started violin three MONTHS ago. She plays a movement of a Rieding concerto (a piece I would normally assign to someone in their 3rd or 4th YEAR) and a short showpiece! I recommend a different bowing which I think makes it easier to capture the phrasing and she instantly changes the bowing for every similar passage in the concerto. I marvel at her talent, intelligence, and concentration.

I go on to coach two of Thang’s university students – the first playing the opening movement of Wieniawski’s 2nd Violin Concerto and the other playing two movements of solo Bach. Because both students have solid technique and are totally prepared, my comments are focused on phrasing suggestions and possible different “tone color” choices for various passages. Both young women are eager to try new ideas and quick to succeed with them.

They are also eager to receive the brochures that our marketing director, Jennifer Clary, has given me about the string area and graduate studies at CSU. I promise that I will talk to our Violin Professor Ron Francois about the possibility of doing a Skype interview/audition when I get back to Ft. Collins to see if they might want to apply to CSU for a masters degree in violin performance.

Thang and Lan take us to dinner at an enormous shopping mall which includes hundreds of stores and restaurants, a huge cineplex, and a busy ice-skating rink (apparently it operates an indoor water park in the summer). While we share a feast of Thai food, I marvel at how many families and young people are out shopping late on a weeknight. Lan insists on taking me to a store where we pick out a few outfits for my grandchildren while “the boys” go on ahead to her sister’s apartment.

We join them later for a nightcap in one of the most luxurious apartment complexes I have ever seen – very delicately clinking gorgeous hand-blown wine glasses she has brought back from Prague. Ha works for the Ministry of Education and her job includes helping Vietnam implement an international assessment program which is apparently operating in over 80 countries. She tells us she has already travelled to over 40 of them, attending conferences and observing how assessment and curriculum are developed around the world.

Ha also owns a farm about 90 minutes outside Hanoi, and has invited us to visit it this Sunday!

~ Submitted by Leslie Stewart, Violin Professor, Director of Master of Music, Music Education Conducting Specialization

 


Our Vietnam Experience, Entry #1

 

Director of Orchestras Wes Kenney and Violin Professor Leslie Stewart are spending ten days over break in Vietnam with the Vietnam National Symphony Orchestra and at the National Music Academy. These entries document their unique and exciting experience!

December 25 to 27, 2017

There is something to be said about international travel in regards to patience. The cliche “hurry up and wait” absolutely applies here. At the LAX international terminal we waited an hour to check in at the desk, then another hour to get through security (it WAS Christmas and they had only one TSA agent looking at documents…at least he was in a good mood.)

After a 13 hour flight to Seoul and then a five hour flight to Hanoi, we then waited a couple of hours to get our Visas in working order collected our luggage and were met by Lan and Thang, the couple that had come to Fort Collins with their violinist daughter Nhi a couple of years back. Lan is the concertmaster of the Vietnam National Symphony Orchestra, and her husband Thang is a violin teacher and a professor at the Vietnam National Music Academy.

The day was rather dreary and rainy, but we caught glimpses of modern bridges and skyscrapers on the way into town for lunch. This was overlooking a lake that is as large as Horsetooth Reservoir. We then were shown to our hotel where we collapsed for a few hours before going to dinner with Thang, Lan, Nhi, and their son Long.

On the way, we discovered how challenging Hanoi traffic can be. Motorbikes swarm the lanes with cars and the only way to make progress is to push forward. The savvy Hanoi driver knows when to wait and when to go. At times progress is limited to a few feet at a time and others there is clear lanes around you. Beware the motorbike rider who decides that traveling in the opposite side of the road against traffic is the best route! Some close calls can result.

Leslie went off to get a massage and I just went back to the room for a blessed evening of sleep. Tomorrow would be a full day!

~ Submitted by Wes Kenney, director of orchestras at CSU