On Sunday, a few Jacobs School of Music professors will trade in their regular morning commutes to the south side of campus for an airplane ride halfway across the world. Their destination? The Vietnam National Academy of Music in Hanoi, Vietnam.
“What we hope the most is to open a new gate, a new door, for people over there to understand more about who we are and what we can do,” said professor P. Q. Phan, who organized the trip.
Phan, who teaches music composition, is originally from Vietnam and immigrated to the United States in the early 1980s. He first visited the academy in 2009. It was the first time since leaving Vietnam that he returned to his country of birth.
The other musicians embarking on this trip, which marks the 60th anniversary of the academy, are clarinet professor Howard Klug, harp professor Elzbieta Szmyt and piano professor Edward Auer, accompanied by his wife, pianist Junghwa Auer.
Phan said while composers from all over Europe and Asia will be in attendance, this delegation is the only group from the U.S. invited to the festival.
When he first approached the academy, the officials were skeptical of his motive, Phan said. It took him years to overcome their distrust of expatriates, which prevented him from sharing his skills with the students in Hanoi.
“Human nature is very interesting because no matter where you live, people always say, ‘So what’s in it for you? Why are you doing this?’” Phan said. “But after I approached them several times and after they understood the intention was good and is sincere, they opened very welcomely to have us come in and help however we can.”
Junghwa Auer said the history of classical music in Vietnam is relatively unknown to the outside world with a few exceptions. She said being from South Korea she has observed how classical music differs from culture to culture and from country to country.
“They all have included their culture in their music, so I’m sure we’ll find it interesting,” Junghwa Auer said. “We could find it strange or we could find it more wonderful, but I’m sure we’ll find something different.”
She said the inclusion of a harpist is very important for the academy because Vietnam does not currently have harp instruction.
Phan said the school is also desperately in need of clarinet consulting, which he said made Klug’s participation in this year’s trip even more timely.
“I think that almost all of us are really eager to go to other places and find other people who are hungrier for music than New Yorkers or London folk,” Edward Auer said.
He referred to the example of pianist and conductor Daniel Barenboim, who constructed concerts comprised of Israeli and Palestinian musicians. Junghwa Auer said even if Barenboim’s orchestra was not big enough to solve the crisis in the Middle East, there is no harm in bringing musical exposure to people who need it.
“The notion that music is an international language is so boring and so overused that it’s even embarrassing to pronounce the words,” Edward Auer said. “But when you really go some place like that, and you cannot speak in words, and you discover that they have the same feelings about music that you do, well, then, that saying has a new life.”
Phan said apart from lending skills to the academy, he thinks the professors can also learn from the culture of music appreciation in Vietnam. He recounted how the first time he brought a colleague with him the pianist opted to perform an hours-long Chopin piece, which Phan thought might cause the audience to leave at intermission.
“It was a very difficult piece, not just to play, but difficult to appreciate,” Phan said. “The kind of music where if you do not have enough sugar in your system, you may fall asleep, but very poetic.”
Phan said he watched the audience and prepared for a mass exodus at intermission. To his surprise, not only did the audience stay for the whole concert, but even the youngest children in attendance were on their feet at the end for an ovation.
Apart from a hotel room and ride to and from the airport, the professors are paying out of pocket. Junghwa Auer said while the best situation for a musician is receiving a fee for their performance, that is not the only thing that leads them to perform.
“Because you live in Vietnam, or because you live someplace in the corner, you’re always an outsider,” Junghwa Auer said. “As soon as young Vietnamese musicians meet people who came from America and came from a wonderful music school, I’m sure they’ll feel America is closer and Indiana University is closer.”
Phan said it may seem peculiar to some that a group of internationally recognized musicians and instructors would travel on their own money to do something that does not materially benefit them.
“They have an opportunity to share something they love so deeply to a part of the world that’s still considered to be quite mysterious,” Phan said. “I think all of us at this stage are more into giving back than taking in, so we don’t mind at all spending a little bit of our money to do things like this.”
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