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?
Madame Hoai hugged me following the performance by the Ancient Ensemble of Tonkin and said in Vietnamese — “America and Vietnam, we are friends.”
With the Ken Burns – Lynn Novick documentary “The Vietnam War” bringing a new perspective to our countries’ shared history, I am reflecting daily about my own personal journey over the past 12 years in this incredible country. My husband and I are honored to have been appointed in 2015 by Vietnam’s Ministry of Culture as Vietnam’s first American artistic advisors. This is a result of many years of work in the country with our ensemble as well as recognizing our assistance in founding the three-year old Hanoi New Music Ensemble.