The International Language

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Pierre Boulez Saal at the Barenboim-Said Akademie in Berlin, Germany

Music is truly the international language, able to be understood and experienced in any country around the world. I learned this on my first trip to Europe as a graduate student and member of the Boston University orchestra which had been chosen as one of ten orchestras worldwide to compete in the Herbert von Karajan competition in Berlin. Under the baton of the late Joseph Silverstein, we won second prize, and interacted with colleagues from all over the world for the two week festival. Before leaving for the tour, Mr. Silverstein admonished all of us to remember that we might be the first Americans the other musicians would meet, and that we were cultural ambassadors for our country. In other words, people would form their opinions of America from each of us.

During the festival, a group of German musicians wanted to get together to read through Beethoven’s Septet and they needed a violist. I gladly agreed to join them. The realization that we could all sit down to play music together despite not speaking each other’s native languages stayed with me. We were able to read the same music and communicate with our instruments through the notes on the page despite an inability to converse in German or English. As my career developed, this universality was reinforced whether performing music in Europe, Mexico, or Vietnam. The communication that is expressed through the arts also includes non-verbal visual arts and dance, as well as the enjoyment of theater and literature through translations. Art truly can transcend borders.

Recently I was in Berlin again for the first time in 40 years. With the city united since 1989, it was a very different experience without the Berlin wall. I was thrilled to be able to walk through the Brandenburg Gate instead of view it at a distance through barbed wire. Culture is everywhere, and construction on many streets speaks to the growth and vibrancy of the city. Berlin is a testament to how the worst horrors of the twentieth century can be acknowledged and yet provide a basis to move forward to a more positive future.

One of the most admirable initiatives in the city is the Barenboim-Said Akademie and its new home that features the Pierre Boulez Saal. Close friends Daniel Barenboim and Edward W. Said founded the West-Eastern Divan Orchestra in Weimar, Germany, in 1999 with a mission to unite young Arab and Israeli musicians. The two men were convinced that peace in the Middle East could not be achieved by military means, and they dedicated themselves to the search for alternative approaches to a political solution. The Barenboim-Said Akademie opened in 2015 as a robust continuation of the spirit and mission of the West- Eastern Divan Orchestra. (To read more about the Akademie, visit

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Photo of Pierre Boulez at entrance to Pierre Boulez Saal in Berlin, Germany

The concert hall at the Akademie, designed by Frank Gehry, was named for the late Pierre Boulez, a composer, conductor, theorist and cultural emissary who revolutionized music during his lifetime. My husband and I performed his music on our Southwest Chamber Music concerts, and we were fortunate to interact with him on some of his visits to Los Angeles when he conducted the Los Angeles Philharmonic. He was an inspiration through his composing, conducting, and his warm personality. As a Frenchman, when he was on stage, I also observed that he had the most elegant tuxedo in the business! Visiting with him after performing his Le Marteau sans maître, Pierre took my hand and said that he was very concerned that the pizzicato (plucking) in the composition created many difficulties, and possibly blisters, for the violist — “Your pizzicato finger, it’s a problem, yes? 

In Berlin, the performance of Arnold Schoenberg’s String Quartet, No. 2, and Beethoven’s Septet (as an encore to my experience forty years ago), reflected the mission of the Akademie, bringing together musicians of many different ethnicities and backgrounds. It was an excellent concert in a beautiful and moving environment, and spoke deeply of the ability of music to bring people together.

I have a personal interest in this ability to bring together different cultures. My husband and I were appointed the first American artistic advisors to Vietnam in 2015 after 10 years working in Vietnam, including the production in 2010 of the largest cultural exchange in history between our countries, supported by the U.S. Department of State. When people ask us why we have pursued these types of activities, I can only say that the opportunity to interact with people from a country with which we were previously at war is meaningful and a great honor.

I reflected upon this while hearing the music of Schoenberg in a city that turned him away as a Jew. Things have changed since then. In the 80s and 90s, my husband and I had the experience of spending five years in a Viennese orchestra with musicians from Austria, Netherlands, Italy, Hungary and America. Later in our careers we joined Mexican musicians to perform and record American and Mexican compositions together. And, having grown up during the Vietnam War, we were honored to develop a cultural exchange project  where we performed side-by-side with Vietnamese musicians in music from the U.S., Vietnam, Japan, Cambodia, and France.

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Hanoi New Music Ensemble

Since our appointments by the Vietnamese Ministry of Culture, we have helped found the first professional contemporary music ensemble in Vietnam, the Hanoi New Music Ensemble. We are bringing our experiences to our colleagues in Hanoi, advising, coaching, and conducting them in Vietnamese music. The response has been overwhelming, with large, young, paying audiences of young Vietnamese. The composers are creating new works, the musicians are expanding their technique, and we are helping them develop their capacity to present their own music in their country and abroad.

In future blogs I will write much more in detail about these inspiring experiences. It has been quite a journey from founding a small concert-producing organization to one that produces international cultural exchanges. My Facebook page is a tribute to my friendships around the world that enhance my life daily. I feel fortunate that music has been the path that led me to many rich experiences.

Today we need this interaction between cultures more than ever. The divisions between citizens of the global society and people with the inability to experience all the world has to offer is being played out daily in our politics. I am fortunate to have traveled to many different parts of the planet, meeting people from different cultures, experiencing their cuisines, and learning about their art that is also timeless.

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Exterior of Jewish Museum in Berlin

For some inspiration to take us past today’s political confusion, I offer a photo of the Jewish Museum Berlin, designed by Daniel Libeskind, a Polish-American architect. Germany’s acknowledgement of its painful history of the Holocaust takes many forms in Berlin, from monuments such as the Holocaust memorial in the center of the city, sidewalk plaques that designate Jewish residents who perished in the concentration camps, and honest education from an early age. Culture and arts have helped provide a path forward through exhibitions, concerts, opera stagings and museums. Libeskind’s design, and the exhibitions inside the museum, give an overview of the contributions of the Jewish community in Germany and provide an historical overview of Jewish history. An honest and personalized view of the Holocaust is combined with a very positive historical narrative over millenium. For more information, please visit The Jewish Museum Berlin.

This inspired me and I hope it inspires you.

One comment

  1. I’ve only stopped at the airport in Berlin. Hope someday visit this dream city. All of our friends love that city. Bill was in Berlin for 2 weeks without me at the beginning of our marriage. I was still Chinese citizen with a US green card. I was so naive and thought I would be able to go, but stopped at LAX. Your Vietnamese music festival looks great. You and Jeff are doing amazing things for their country. I still have not received your book yet, I don’t know why. Enjoy your time in Vietnam!

    Much love,

    Joan and Bill


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