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Vietnamese Experience Tour photo

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.

Orchestra group rehearsingThe 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

Vietnamese National Symphony OrchestraI 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

Vietnamese Experience Tour photo

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

Sheraton HanoiThe 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 Phō, 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