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Musical Exchange Brings Harmony to One-Time Foes

American and Vietnamese musicians rehearse

American and Vietnamese musicians rehearse

The largest cultural exchange ever between the United States and Vietnam wrapped up last month in California. Classically trained musicians from Vietnam and the United States performed together in Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City in March, and again in Los Angeles in April and May. The project was funded by a grant from the U.S. State Department. Participants say that music bridged their differences in language and culture.

Vietnamese musician demonstrates Bau at a California high school

Vietnamese musician demonstrates Bau at a California high school

A Vietnamese musician demonstrated a traditional instrument called the dan bau at a school in suburban Los Angeles.

She is one of 19 Vietnamese musicians who were in California for performances and workshops with musicians from Southwest Chamber Music, an Emmy-award winning group based in California, where Jeff von der Schmidt is artistic director. He grew up when the United States was at war with Vietnam in the 1960s and '70s.

"And the idea that I'm doing this can still, in fact, make me a little teary eyed and make me very emotional, make me very happy about the fact that we're able to write a new chapter in music between our two countries," von der Schmidt said.

The project is called the Ascending Dragon Music Festival and Cultural Exchange. It commemorates the 15-year anniversary of the normalization of diplomatic relations between the United States and Vietnam in 1995. With the earlier performances in Vietnam, the musicians also helped celebrate the 1,000th anniversary of the Vietnamese capital, Hanoi.

Vietnamese violinist Nguyen Thu Binh

Vietnamese violinist Nguyen Thu Binh

Vietnamese violinist Nguyen Thu Binh says the exchange has gone well.

She says there have been no problems so far because music is a universal language. She adds that the musicians were having fun playing American and Vietnamese music together.

In addition to Western and Vietnamese classics, the performers presented two new compositions by American composers and two by Vietnamese composers, including Vu Nhat Tan from Hanoi.

"There are no borders between us because we just use music, and there are no language (problems), we just (use) music and sound," Tan said. "

Southwest Chamber Music's executive director, Jan Karlin, says the participants had an immediate rapport.

"We're all playing together as colleagues, and if more of that went on, I think there'd be less wars in this world," Karlin said.

Southwest Chamber Music's Jeff von der Schmidt says the exchange highlights a saying of Confucius that is popular in Asia.

"Which is that the greatest happiness is when a friend has traveled to visit you from a far-away land," von der Schmidt said. "And so we have felt that with the Vietnamese coming to the United States and all of our players felt that going to Hanoi. So I don't think this is a project that is going to stop."

In addition to concerts and performances at schools, the musicians took part in workshops on the management of non-profit arts institutions, to see how groups like Southwest Chamber Music apply for and receive grants from foundations, corporations and government agencies.

Von der Schmidt says all these activities have created a musical bridge between the two countries.