The legendary Kolisch Quartet had the singular distinction of playing its entire repertoire from memory, including the impossibly complex modern works of Schoenberg, Webern, Bartok, and Berg. Eugene Lehner was the violist for the quartet in the 1930’s. Lehner’s stories about their remarkable performances often included a hair-raising moment when one player or another had a memory slip. Although he relished the rapport that developed between them without the encumbrance of a music stand, he admits there was hardly a concert in which some mistake did not mar the performance. The alertness, presence, and attention required of the players in every performance is hard to fathom, but in one concert an event occurred that surpassed their ordinary brinkmanship.
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.
We arrived in Hanoi in September 2016 to begin the second season of the Hanoi New Music Ensemble. Jeff and I were hopeful that the enthusiasm and accomplishments of the inaugural season would keep the ensemble moving forward — all signs were good!
However, there are challenges forming any new group throughout the globe. Which players are a good match for the demands of new music? How will we prepare and rehearse within players’ busy teaching and orchestra schedules? Where will the concerts be held and how will we find an audience? Who will organize the rehearsals, percussion, and piano?
After the inaugural 2012 LA International New Music Festival in Los Angeles, composer-in-residence Vu Nhat Tan turned to Jeff and me, remarking that “Once is not enough!” He was wrapping up six weeks in Los Angeles, courtesy of the Asian Cultural Council in New York City, and we had spent much time dreaming of next steps for contemporary music in his hometown of Hanoi, Vietnam.
Southwest Chamber Music’s historic Ascending Dragon Music Festival in 2010, the largest cultural exchange between Vietnam and the U.S., had left us with many questions about the U.S. Department of State’s goal of identifying a new generation of cultural leaders. Had we accomplished this goal?