Charles Rex  

Musings on the New York Philharmonic's Vietnam Concerts

Charles Rex
November 19, 2019

Editor's Abstract (Click to Hide)

Charles Rex, violinist with the New York Philharmonic, sent his friends and colleagues some detailed email descriptions of his trip to North Korea in 2007. A mutual friend told me about them, I contacted Charles, and he graciously agreed to edit his email musings into a fascinating article about that trip.

When I saw Charles at a NY Philharmonic concert in May, 2009, I asked him to do the same for his upcoming trip to Vietnam with the orchestra. His insights are particularly interesting because he traveled to China in the early 1970s with the Philadelphia Orchestra, another major cultural and diplomatic overture on the part of the United States. Charles also sent us quite a few photographs to accompany his thoughts about their trip to Hanoi, and how it compared to his previous tours in China and North Korea.

- Ann Drinan

Prior to the New York Philharmonic’s historic trip to Pyongyang nearly two years ago, it had been some 35 years between the two very large cultural events in which I had the good fortune to be a participant and which many regarded as of great international importance – the Philadelphia Orchestra’s tour of Mainland China in 1973 under the Nixon administration and the New York Philharmonic’s trip to North Korea in 2008. The similarities between the two situations were quite striking to me, and to be among the first Westerners to see these two countries in decades, as well as to be able to share the cultural accomplishments of the great composers of the Western Hemisphere with two peoples for most of whom such works of art were totally unfamiliar, were among the highlights of my musical career and were experiences never to be forgotten.

Thus to find myself as part of a cultural outreach to yet another country that for the most part had remained secretive and apart from the Western world, this to be a trip to Hanoi in Vietnam, once again with the New York Philharmonic, was to my mind going to be yet another unique highlight of my orchestral experiences. I feel it totally inadequate to resort to the trite and trivial cliché that music is the international language but, no matter how often that phrase has been used in less than earth-shattering situations, there can be no denying the truth of it.

Hanoi Opera House Hanoi Opera House. (Click to enlarge.)

From the time the trip was announced, I began to wonder what similarities I would find among these three countries. I had discovered many parallels between the China of the 1970s under Mao Tse Tung and the North Korea of the 21st century under Kim Jong-il (see Musings on the New York Philharmonic's North Korea Concert), but the China of today bears little resemblance to that of the same country 35 years ago. I found myself wondering if Vietnam would more closely resemble North Korea, what with the government presence everywhere as well as an ongoing “revolution” against the Western world as expressed in anti-American posters and signs throughout the country despite poverty and deprivations, or would we see something more approaching an imitation of China’s growing financial clout as that country treads the thin path between capitalism and its own form of communism?

One thing that puzzled me from the outset of our trip was the lack of attention paid by the media to this particular event. The news coverage of our trip to North Korea in 2008 had been very intense, with news organizations from across the globe joining us for our landing in Pyongyang. Now we were visiting another secretive communist country with whom we had had less than cordial relations for decades, and yet our trip barely registered a “blip” anywhere. We landed at the Hanoi airport at night with no media coverage and extraordinarily little fanfare when compared to the Philadelphia Orchestra’s China trip and the New York Philharmonic’s North Korean visit, and yet it seemed to me that the events could be seen as almost of equal importance.

Hanoi Shopping District Hanoi shopping district. (Click to enlarge.)

Upon reflection, however, there were differences. First of all, the world financial crisis has rightfully been front and center of news coverage for months, and thus an orchestra concert could hardly be seen as newsworthy given the struggles of so many people to deal with the hardships that have been plaguing virtually the entire world. Secondly, the United States had had extraordinarily few diplomatic relations with either China or North Korea prior to the visits by those orchestras of which I was a member. In the case of Vietnam, however, we have at least had some sort of relationship at work for a few years, and we do have a United States Embassy in place in Hanoi. Furthermore Vietnam had already been quietly trying to improve its international image and had actually in recent years been attempting to attract tourists and other visitors. Thus our visit was less of a sudden “bolt from the blue” as it was something of a logical progression in Vietnam’s steps to include itself in the world community. Still, I realized that it was going to be yet another extraordinary trip, and I certainly did not want to miss it.

Hanoi Street Scene Hanoi street scene. (Click to enlarge.)

Our trip to Vietnam was preceded by some concerts in Seoul, South Korea, certainly one of the more thriving cosmopolitan cities of the world in a country that had achieved a great deal of financial influence as well as industrial prowess, as represented by such heavyweight companies as Hyundai and LG. Seoul is a thoroughly modern and affluent city with a booming economy and modern construction. As we were taking off from Seoul Incheon Airport on our trip to Hanoi, I was again wondering what we would find. In our visit to North Korea, we saw a people struggling to eke out a living, a place where even electricity is doled out in small amounts, heavy machinery for construction is at a minimum, and the government presence is felt everywhere with pictures of Kim Jong-il or his father gazing down on the people. In short, no two countries could be more different than the two Koreas. In 2008, our trip to Pyongyang had been preceded by a visit to two thriving cities of China– Beijing and Shanghai – with their tall modern buildings that rivaled those of other Asian cities. Visiting these two cities made it obvious that China was now adopting some capitalist principles that allowed for an increasing middle class of people with money to spend on consumer goods. The question in my mind was upon which side of the political and financial spectrum would we find Vietnam falling.

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