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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 Superman cakeHappy 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 McDonald’s 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.

Hanoi Opera House before the New Year's celebrationThe 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.

Lobby of the Vietnamese Paris Opera HouseMirror in Opera House with bullet holeWe 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!

Subscription Concert Posterorchestra playing on the stageTonight 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!

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