New York Philharmonic brings musical diplomacy to Vietnam

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The Independent Culture

With help from Beethoven and Brahms, the United States and Vietnam will engage in musical diplomacy this weekend when the New York Philharmonic debuts in the communist nation after a historic visit to Stalinist North Korea last year.

The orchestra, one of the world's oldest, is to hold its first concerts in Vietnam Friday and Saturday at the Hanoi Opera House as part of an Asian tour which has taken it to Tokyo and Seoul.

"I cannot see a downside to cultural diplomacy, particularly musical diplomacy of which the New York Philharmonic is the premier representative," US ambassador Michael Michalak told reporters.

But he said it was not fair to compare the Philharmonic's visit to Vietnam with its trip to Pyongyang in February 2008, when the orchestra was the largest US delegation in years to visit the reclusive and poverty-stricken nation.

Fast-modernising Vietnam, in contrast, has a booming market economy and is increasingly courting international exposure.

Ties between Vietnam and the United States have grown diplomatically, economically and culturally since the two countries normalised relations in 1995 two decades after their bloody war ended.

Nguyen Van Tinh, of Vietnam's Ministry of Culture, Sport and Tourism, said the Philharmonic's visit comes at Vietnam's invitation and will strengthen understanding and friendship between the two sides.

"This is a significant cultural event," said Tinh, director of the ministry's international cooperation department.

Planning for the concerts began last year, said Zarin Mehta, the orchestra's president and executive director.

Mehta described "a certain sense of adrenalin and a sense of occasion" to play in Hanoi.

"The existence of this beautiful opera house was also in itself an attraction," he said of the French colonial-era building.

Alan Gilbert, who became the orchestra's music director last month, said that when their plane landed in Hanoi he felt an overwhelming "realisation of a dream come true".

Travelling through the city's chaotic streets, he said, left him with "a real sense of life and of culture" that felt appropriate to the orchestra's presence.

Gilbert will conduct the orchestra in Beethoven's Symphony No. 7 on both nights, with Beethoven's Piano Concerto No. 4 on Friday and Brahms' Violin Concerto on Saturday.

He called the works "very, very meaningful and possible to grasp on a visceral level".

The orchestra had earlier considered playing Samuel Barber's Adagio for Strings, the theme from the Vietnam War movie "Platoon", but that piece will not be performed in Hanoi.

"We just decided not to play it this time," Gilbert said, adding that the programmes "would be stronger without it".

The concerts in the 590-seat opera house are almost sold out, and organisers say they will set up two outdoor screens to show the concerts free to people in the surrounding area of central Hanoi.

In addition, the Saturday night concert will be aired live on Vietnamese television.

More than a third of the tickets for the two concerts went to sponsors and government officials, with the rest sold to the general public, an organiser said.

Ticket prices ranged from 1.5 million dong (85 dollars) to 3.5 million dong, putting them out of reach for most people in this largely rural society where the annual per capita income is about 1,000 dollars.

Le Hoang Dung, of state-owned Vietnam Airlines, said his company stepped in Wednesday as a sponsor after talk about "budget problems" with the event.

The New York Philharmonic, founded in 1842, has performed in 59 countries. From Vietnam, the orchestra heads to Singapore and the United Arab Emirates.

Gilbert hopes for "many, many return visits" to Vietnam.

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