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13 December 2016

34th Asian Composers League Festival and Conference / 2nd ‘Asia-Europe’ New Music Festival, Vietnam

Stephen Lebsanft, Eve Duncan, Johanna Selleck, Natalya Vagner and Andrián Pertout in Vietnam Image: Stephen Lebsanft, Eve Duncan, Johanna Selleck, Natalya Vagner and Andrián Pertout in Vietnam  

Andrián Pertout reports from the 2016 Asian Composers League (ACL) Festival & Conference / 'Asia-Europe' New Music Festival in Vietnam.

Established in 1973 as a means of promoting the art music activities in Asian countries and fostering mutual exchange between these countries, the Asian Composers' League (ACL) is a contemporary music organisation in the Asia-Pacific region currently comprising of fourteen official member countries and regions: Australia, Hong Kong, Indonesia, Israel, Japan, Korea, Malaysia, New Zealand, Philippines, Singapore, Taiwan, Tatarstan, Thailand, and Turkey. The inaugural ACL Conference and Festival took place in Hong Kong in 1973, and since then events have been organised annually or biennially.

The 34th Asian Composers League Festival and Conference was held in Hanoi and Vinh Yen on 12-18 October 2016, organised by the Vietnam Musicians' Association. The seven-day event also incorporated the 2nd 'Asia-Europe' New Music Festival and consisted of eleven concerts dedicated to symphony orchestra, chamber music, choral music, and traditional music, as well as a special 'Friendship Melodies' concert and the obligatory 'ACL Young Composers Competition' concert.

The slogan for this year's festival was 'Music: Convergence and Pervasion', and included was a workshop component featuring the Vietnamese dan bau (monochord zither) as well as topics relating to aspects of the Asia/Europe cultural exchange. The participants of the festival consisted of over 100 composers from Australia, Cambodia, Canada, China, Colombia, France, Germany, Hong Kong, India, Indonesia, Israel, Japan, Korea, Laos, Malaysia, New Zealand, Philippines, Poland, Russian, Singapore, Spain, Taiwan, Tatarstan, Thailand, Turkey, USA, and Vietnam.

The young composer selected to represent Australia was Stephen Lebsanft from Melbourne (a current student from the Melbourne Conservatorium of Music, University of Melbourne) with the work Rhapsody for solo viola (2016), presented as part of the 'ACL Young Composers Competition' concert at the Vietnam National Academy of Music. Other representation from Australia included Eve Duncan's The Banquet of Cleopatra and In a Corner of the Macintyre for brass quintet (2016), Andrián Pertout's Angustam Amice for choir (SATB) and string orchestra, no. 428 (2014-2015) - which was performed by the Vietnam National Opera and Ballet Choir and the Vietnam National Symphony Orchestra conducted by Zoe Zeniodi (Greece/USA), Johanna Selleck's Homage to Liszt for solo piano (2013) and Natalya Vagner's The Ride to the Crescent Moon for oboe, flute, violin, dan bau and piano (2016). These works were featured in the chamber music concerts and 'Closing Ceremony and Gala Concert' respectively.

The opening ceremony and concert took place at the Hanoi Opera House - one of Hanoi's important cultural and architectural monuments, built by the French colonial administration between 1901 and 1911, and modelled on the Palais Garnier opera house in Paris. The concert, featuring the Vietnam National Symphony Orchestra conducted by Tetsuji Honna, was organised into two parts, with the second part 'Conductors are Composers' framing the music of Isao Matsushita (Japan), Richard Tsang (Hong Kong), Robert Casteels (Singapore), Do Hong Quan (Vietnam) and Nguyen Thieu Hoa (Vietnam). Highlights of the concert included Marc Battier's (France) Recollections for orchestra - a stunningly beautiful gestural work with an electroacoustic component that delicately layered the orchestra with a collection of subtle overtones; Isao Matsushita's (Japan) Air of the Firmament for solo violin and chamber orchestra, which focused on an exploration of a simple yet lyrical melodic line soaring over a rich harmonic bed of exquisite orchestral colours; Robert Casteels's (Singapore) Cu Rùa: Symphonic Poem for dan bau and orchestra - a quirky, pulse-driven frantic piece, imaginatively orchestrated, featuring the Vietnamese monochord zither; and Nguyen Thieu Hoa's (Vietnam) Concerto for solo nhi and orchestra, which was a folk-inspired work showcasing the amazing virtuosity of Nguyen The Dan on Vietnamese two-string fiddle - a virtuosity that has gained him both the 'Elite Artist' title in 1997 and the 'People's Artist' title in 2016.

The second day of the festival included two concerts at the Concert Hall of the Vietnam National Academy of Music. The first concert highlighted new generations of Vietnamese composers, including Nguyen Minh Trang's Duet for sáo trúc (Vietnamese bamboo flute) and đàn tranh (16-string Vietnamese zither) and Pham Thi Hue's Kieu Khuc for tỳ bà (Vietnamese lute) and voice. The latter featured the expressive Ca Tru melodies that derive from the epic poem 'The Tale of Kieu by Nguyen Du', delightfully rendered by vocalist, multi-instrumentalist and composer Pham Thi Hue. The second featured the Asia/America New Music Institute (AANMI), which is an association founded by American composer Chad Cannon and dedicated to promoting new music relationships between Asia and the Americas. Interesting to note is that over the years AANMI has presented concerts in Beijing, Tianjin, Shenyang, Los Angeles, New York City, Bangkok, Hanoi, Salt Lake Coty, Okinawa, and Seoul. One of the great works in the program was Harue Kondoh's (Japan) elegantly subdued yet highly emotive Moh-Ashibi for sanshin (3-string Japanese lute) and violin.

Chamber music concerts on the third day featured Kyoung Ja Kim's (Korea) Deux Chemins (Two Paths) for violin, viola and violoncello, a striking work with long-drawn-out notes gently decorated with intermittent glissandi - the musicality displayed by Moscow Conservatory graduates Stepan Yakovich (violin), Lev Serov (viola), Dmitry Feygin (violocello) within their interpretation of the work was electric. One of the works we did not hear on the program was Dan Yuhas's (Israel) Trio for clarinet, violin and pianoforte, which was cancelled (along with various other works during the festival) for what could be politely expressed as 'technical' reasons. The first part of the night concert featured arrangements of Andalusian songs (adorned by the words of Federico García Lorca) by Spanish composer/pianist Domènec González de la Rubia, performed in partnership with singer Estela Barrientos (Spain). The second part then presented the world premiere of the Australian Natalya Vagner's playful and energetic The Ride to the Crescent Moon, a fitting tribute to Natalya's encounter with Vietnam.

Highlights of further chamber music concerts during the festival included Alexander Tchaikovsky's (Russia) slow-moving and relenting Schnittke-like String Quintet (Piano); Dang Hong Anh's (Vietnam/Poland) folk-inspired and Bartók-like Capricio 'Tay Nguyen' for string orchestra; and Yii Kah Hoe's (Malaysia) modernist yet minimalist My Spirit is Singing for solo oboe, which, with its limited pitch material ornamented occasionally with multiphonics, effectively explored spatial variation within the acoustic environment of the concert hall (the constantly shifting position of the player - moving from the front, to the middle and then to the back of the hall - sonically compelling). A composition that certainly made a mark in this trio of events was Moisès Bertran's (Colombia) Camins de vidre for violin and piano - an expressive, well-crafted, and sensitive work of great emotional conviction, masterfully interpreted by violinist Ala Voronkova and pianist Guerassim Voronkov (Russia/Spain).

On the second last day, the festival travelled to Vinh Yen for the 'Friendship Melodies Concert' - Vinh Yen is the capital city of Vinh Phúc Province, in the Red River Delta region of northern Vietnam, and one of its scenic virtues is the Dam Vac Lake that surrounds the urban landscape with its many intertwined lakes and ponds. It is here that we were all treated to a more relaxed 'resort' environment and a night event celebrating both the folk and popular music of the region (Vietnam, Laos, and Cambodia), as well as that of Asia's north (Japan). Most memorable was a performance by Kodō, the world-famous professional taiko drumming troupe from Sado Island (a large island situated in the Niigata Prefecture, in the Chūbu region of Japan). Kodō's performance was exhilarating, and the level of precision, stamina and imagination presented within their entertaining 'audience friendly' routines was astounding.

The closing ceremony and gala concert on Tuesday, 18 October at the Grand Concert Hall of the Vietnam National Academy of Music delivered the results of the '23rd ACL Young Composers Competition,' with first, second and third prizes going to Po-Chien Liu (Taiwan), Hisataka Nishimori (Japan) and Jonathan M. Domingo (Philippines) respectively. The 2016 ACL Yoshiro Irino Memorial Prize went to Tran Luu Hoang (Philippines) for his work Fantasie for clarinet, violoncello and piano. This award, initiated in 1988, nominates the best musical work by a composer from the host country under the age 35 at each ACL festival. The 2016 ACL Hsu Tsang-Houei Memorial Prize (best work utilising traditional instruments by a composer from the host country) went to Nguyen Minh Trang (Vietnam) for her work Duet for sáo trúc (Vietnamese bamboo flute) and đàn tranh (16-string Vietnamese zither). The Best Performance Award went to the Vietnam National Symphony Orchestra and its chief conductor Tetsuji Honna. One of the highlights of the actual concert was Azamat Khassanshin's (Russia) Altun Urda for symphony orchestra - a dedication to the empire of the Turks and Mongols (XIII-XV centuries), and a work characterising the grandest of orchestral traditions.

The hospitality and generosity of the Vietnamese throughout the festival was simply incredible. Not only did they pick up and drop off everybody from and to the airport (yes, over 100 composers, not to mention the other countless number of invited performers), but they also managed to feed everybody, morning, day, and night, which is an amazing undertaking in itself. I was personally overwhelmed by the very fact that the Vietnam Musicians' Association had engaged the Vietnam National Opera and Ballet Choir for one work alone, which happened to be my own work. The combined sensory power of the Vietnam National Opera and Ballet Choir and the Vietnam National Symphony Orchestra were sensational.

In this, my second musical adventure to the region, I have come away reflecting on the understanding that Vietnam is certainly a country that supports culture and the arts with unsurmountable pride and commitment. The musical experience was just great - and the food unforgettable (make a note of the following: Pho at Pho 10, Bún cha at KOTO on Van Mieu; prawn spring rolls with mango salsa at Madame Hien [a restored 19th-century villa]; steam codfish with ginger and spring onion in superior soya sauce at the Lý Club [an elegant French colonial mansion).

The next ACL Festival and Conference is scheduled to take place in Taipei (Taiwan) in the latter part of 2018, and so there will be no official ACL festival in 2017, although the Japan Federation of Composers (JFC) is planning to host an ACL Special Festival in November next year.

Further links

Vietnam Musicians' Association (www.hoinhacsi.org)

Asian Composers' League (www.asiancomposersleague.com/)

Melbourne Composers' League (www.melbournecomposersleague.com/)

Andrián Pertout is a freelance composer. His music has been performed in over forty countries around the world, and he was Honorary Fellow at the Melbourne Conservatorium of Music, University of Melbourne (2007-2015) and President of the Melbourne Composers’ League (2009-2013). He is currently Australian Delegate of the Asian Composers’ League, Lecturer in Composition at the Faculty of the VCA (University of Melbourne), and also teaches composition and production at the Australian Institute of Music (AIM).


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