Tuesday, October 20, 2009

New York Philharmonic in Hanoi

It was somewhere in the middle of the second movement of Beethoven's 7th Symphony that I realized how incongruous it was. There I was, sitting on my motor bike, in front of the 100-year-old Hanoi Opera House, watching the New York Philharmonic on a giant outdoor screen with hundreds of other people, while honking motorbikes and wheezing buses growled all around.

Musical diplomacy has become a bit of a schtick for American orchestras, ever since the Boston Symphony Orchestra's 1956 visit to the Soviet Union, at the height of the Cold War. The New York Philharmonic itself paid a controversial visit to North Korea last year, becoming the first western orchestra, and the largest group of Americans, to visit that isolated country since the end of the Korean War. It would be tempting to view the Philharmonic's trip to Hanoi in a similar light.
But the Philharmonic's Hanoi visit – its first ever to Vietnam – was less an act of diplomacy, and more a logical step in a process of rapprochement that has been taking place between the U.S. and Vietnam since 1995. And if the Philharmonic's visit to Pyongyang could be criticized as helping to legitimize one of the world's most isolated and repressive regimes, the orchestra's Hanoi visit should probably be seen as simply one more act in Vietnam's ongoing effort to break out of its longtime isolation and join the community of developed nations.

To be sure, it was hard not to see a certain irony in both the venue, and the price of the tickets. The Hanoi Opera House (Nhà hát lớn Hà Nội) was built as a shrine to European high culture – a replica of the Palais Garnier opera house in Paris – between 1901 and 1911. With its luxurious period seating and world-class acoustics, it was a perfect venue for an evening of classical music.

What truly harkened back to the colonial era, however, were the ticket prices, which ranged from U.S. $80 to over $200 in a country whose median annual income hovers around $1,000. That the seats managed to be filled for two nights shows both the strides Vietnam has taken in terms of economic development, and the social stratification that seems an inevitable component of Vietnam's headlong rush into capitalism. At least the government's decision to broadcast the event for free – albeit into one of Hanoi's most hectic traffic circles – could be seen as a nod to the country's professed socialist values. One only wonders how long Vietnam will continue to give lip service to those ideals.
None of this seemed to matter Saturday night, however, to the few hundred people who sat outside and listened to a wonderful performance by one of the world's premier orchestras. The first act featured Brahms' Violin Concerto in D, and showcased the incredible virtuosic technique of soloist Franz Joseph Zimmerman (playing a 1711 Stradivarius!). After a brief intermission, the orchestra launched into Beethoven's 7th Symphony, with its famous second movement serving as a haunting counterpoint to the Hanoi traffic.

On a comfortable autumn evening, perched atop a 110cc Honda Dream, before one of France's colonial jewels, it was easy to get lost in the music.

1 comment:

  1. What a lovely moment. Enjoy reading your blog.