No Boundaries

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(L to R) Đàm Quang Minh, Jeff von der Schmidt, Jan Karlin and Vũ Nhật Tân enjoying dinner in the French Quarter of Hanoi, Vietnam

I have recently returned to Vietnam to begin the fourth season of the Hanoi New Music Ensemble. My husband Jeff von der Schmidt and I are the first American Artistic Advisors to Vietnam, helping to shape the first professional new music ensemble in the country. The group is moving forward quickly, reflecting our former Ambassador Ted Osius’ observation that “one year in Vietnam is equal to ten years elsewhere.”

Jeff conducts the ensemble and I coach the strings as well as guide administrative development. This is our ninth trip to the country since 2006, and we feel that we have a second home here, with dear friends, familiar audiences, and endless stimulation provided by a different culture evidenced through food, music, architecture, and attitudes.

The background of our work here can be found in my biography and book as it is too lengthy for one blog. But what I can share with you is my observation that culture moves one step at a time, and often is unpredictable in how it takes shape. Although Vietnam has moved beyond its colonial past, the country has maintained remnants of its history with wonderful integration of western influences into its vibrant Asian culture.

The music scene is an excellent example. A French opera house, Japanese-led symphony orchestra, American-style jazz scene — all reflect Vietnam’s history. Add in rich Vietnamese traditional music and you have a vibrant stew of many ingredients that crosses many genres.

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Hanoi Opera House

However, in the 20th century, musicians watched their art form develop artificial boundaries – you were into jazz, or you liked pop music, or you attended the symphony. Gradually these distinctions led to further stratifications: baroque, contemporary, romantic, soft-jazz, be-bop, etc., etc.. Because of the recording industry and concert marketing techniques, audience members were categorized to encourage ticket and recording sales. What resulted was less exploration and diminished musical curiosity.

In the era of  social media and the internet in the 21st century, I see encouraging signs that this is beginning to turn around. Curiosity is stimulated through the ability to share “likes,” search a new artist on line, sample tracks on iTunes, or research an unfamiliar composer on the internet. Artists are leaving behind managers, recording labels and press agents for self-promotion, self-recording and self-marketing. It is an uncharted territory and it may lead to new creativity and exploration.

In a country such as Vietnam, new technologies are stimulating culture. Even though there are vestiges of western culture, the youthful culture here is finding its own path. It is less crossover than collaboration, less established and often cutting-edge. 60% of the population is under 35, reflected in sold-out young audiences for the Hanoi New Music Ensemble as they perform their country’s music.

I have observed that countries depend on the presence of their own cultural leaders or the art wanders or becomes imposed from outside. I am pleased to report that Vietnam has a wealth of cultural leaders from three generations of composers — past, present and future — who are shaping the country’s musical scene. I don’t know them all, but the ones with whom I interact are exciting, thoughtful and forward-looking. Add to this mix young and old accomplished performers who are performing their own music and you have a fast-moving river of new creativity.

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Jeff with composer Nguyễn Thiên Đạo in 2013

Three generations of composers reflect the history of the country. Tôn Thất Tiết and Nguyễn Thiên Đạo left Vietnam in the 1950s to settle in Paris and develop international reputations. The middle generation, composers such as Vũ Nhật Tân and Trần Kim Ngọc, studied in Europe and the USA, and could have remained outside Vietnam. They both chose to return to their country for their careers. The youngest generation, Nguyễn Minh Nhật and Luong Hue Trinh, are currently studying abroad, examples of young global artists whose music is already performed in their own country as well as internationally.

(L to R) Composer Nguyễn Minh Nhật in Paris with his mentor Tôn Thất Tiết

This wealth of Vietnamese musical creators defines the Hanoi New Music Ensemble. Led by composer Vũ Nhật Tân (artistic director) and violinist Phạm Trương Sơn (executive director), the ensemble’s mission is to present Vietnamese compositions at home and abroad. Conductor Jeff von der Schmidt leads the ensemble and helps shape the programs. The musicians are amongst the finest in the country, notable performers and teachers.

And, the ensemble is also breaking down musical boundaries. There is a rich tradition of Vietnamese traditional music that is still unfamiliar to the public. In a sense, it is “new” music as it was historically suppressed by the French and is being rediscovered by modern Vietnamese audiences. Enter the Đông Kinh Cở Nhạc (Ancient Ensemble of Tonkin), led by artistic director Đàm Quang Minh, who has formed an ensemble devoted to presenting the music of Vietnam’s past. This stellar ensemble of traditional musicians are collaborating with the Hanoi New Music Ensemble to both bring forward their music and also encourage new compositions that combine old and new.

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Hanoi New Music Ensemble and Đông Kinh Cở Nhạc members 2017 rehearsal for new composition Kim/Metal by Vu Nhat Tan

As the coming weeks move forward with performances, I look forward to sharing  stories about the composers, concerts and musicians. We are honored to be part of Vietnam’s developing cultural scene and hope that our experiences at home can inspire and assist the Hanoi New Music Ensemble.

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World premiere of Vũ Nhật Tân’s Kim/Metal in 2017

Please explore my other blogs to learn more about our work in Hanoi (click on Hanoi New Music Ensemble and Vietnam in Tags at the bottom of Follow the Hanoi New Music Ensemble at and To read more about our adventures in Vietnam, visit, where Jeff writes about our travel experiences in this special country, focusing on sites, sounds and food!


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