Tchaikovsky in Hanoi

On 19 August 1945, a few days after the Japanese surrender in World War II, cadres of the Viet Minh entered Hanoi and used the steps of the still magnificent but temporarily scruffy Opera House to proclaim the success of the August Revolution and the foundation of an independent democratic republic. Thousands of peasants bearing machetes and bamboo swords were joined by equal numbers of urban dwellers, many of whom had heard of the Viet Minh for the first time only days before, to acclaim the victorious revolutionaries. A smaller-scale version of Charles Garnier’s Paris Opera, Nha Hat Lon, as the Opera House is known locally, was, with its Napoleonic panache and grandeur, just the place for large gestures and significant announcements.

Walking past this splendid and now thoroughly refurbished building 60 years and a couple of months later, my wife and I saw a poster advertising a ‘Gala Concert’ to be held on the following evening to mark 30 years of diplomatic relations between Vietnam and Germany. The guest conductor was Wolfgang Hoyer with the Vietnam National Symphony Orchestra and on the program were Beethoven, Wagner and Tchaikovsky. Before you could say ‘Ho Chi Minh masterminded the longest, most devastating and most successful war against Western colonialism’, we were negotiating the purchase of two of the last few tickets left. A snap at 80,000 dong each, even if our seats were so high up that we might suffer from nosebleeds and oxygen deprivation. But at least we were in. Going to a performance, the guidebooks assured us, was the only way to see the grand interior because the Opera House was otherwise permanently locked.

We scrubbed up a bit and, after a stroll through the humid, amiably frenetic, motorbike-clogged streets of the French quarter, arrived rather early—despite objections from my wife who favours the last-minute-dash approach to appointments. As we entered the foyer, we were handed a program each and then a young woman began ushering us up the stairs ‘to the reception’. Bewildered but obedient, we found ourselves in a vast, ornate chamber among a colourful, polyglot, voluble crowd, where we were plied with champagne and beautiful local food. An exquisitely dressed Vietnamese woman materialised at our side and introduced us to Christian-Ludwig Weber-Lortsch, the German ambassador to Vietnam who, on finding that we were not Germans, drew upon the smooth, diplomatic sangfroid that had no doubt ensured advancement to this present important posting, concealed his perplexity at our presence, and chatted with us at some length. The Chilean ambassador did the same when, working the room in Spanish, German, English and Vietnamese, he came into our orbit, as did several other politely puzzled notables whose names we scarcely caught. Thoroughly enjoying the champagne and the finger food, I was well ensconced when my wife, with a punctilio equal to that of our diplomatic hosts, suggested that we should push our luck no further and make a quiet and dignified retreat.

So up we went into the exotic confines of the topmost balcony, where the view was vertiginous but the orchestra still loud. The concert was enjoyable, if uneven, but it’s easy to criticise the musicians of the VNSO as they strove to meet the energetic Western expectations of Wolfgang Hoyer. Tchaikovsky’s Romeo and Juliet Overture struck me as the moment of truth. To Western ears, through the filter of overwhelming Shakespearean assumptions and remembered scenes, come the sounds of romance, love, passion and cruel tragedy. The England of Shakespeare, the Italy of the Montagues and the Capulets, the Europe of Tchaikovsky’s illustrious contemporaries—Bizet, Verdi, Offenbach, Massenet—appropriate his Romeo and Juliet Overture so neatly and thoroughly, so expectedly, that any other interpretation seems outlandish. But Tchaikovsky comes to Vietnam not across the dulcifying cities of Europe but through Nizhniy Novgorod, the Kirgiz Steppe, Tashkent, the Tibetan Plateau. In the VNSO’s rendition, beneath those wonderful romantic melodies, you could catch the edge of anxiety, treachery and ambition that was Tchaikovsky’s St Petersburg element, and the bleak, unforgiving landscapes that were his Russia. This barbarian undercurrent to some of the world’s most famous romantic music suited the Vietnamese musicians, whose recent forebears had thrown out the greatest Western invader of the age, just as, I suspect, it suited Tchaikovsky, who was not thinking much about Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet when he composed this first masterpiece of his career. I bet the oddly perturbing result wasn’t quite what Wolfgang Hoyer had in mind either.

Our unexpected attendance at the pre-concert reception was a curious, marvellous interlude, and it happened because the Vietnamese, from the formally attired concertgoers to families squatting on the pavement eating lunch alongside their market stalls, are a courteous, naturally friendly people. Being with them day to day—acknowledging their smiles and genuine helpfulness, politely fending off their charming but undeviating, persistent efforts to sell us everything from expensive silk to old paperbacks—made it difficult to imagine that these people were once our ‘enemies’, that our government had made a strident case, with its powerful ally, for invading them—at a cost of more than one million Vietnamese civilian deaths—and that our protests at the time were labelled treachery.

What are the chances that our grandchildren will return from their travels in the 2020s with stories about the wonderful friendliness of the Iraqis? 

Brian Matthews travelled to Hanoi on frequent flyer points. In Vietnam, he was, regrettably, not a guest of Vietnam Airlines.



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