In a Vietnamese Outpouring

OAKLAND—Despite very meager attendance on the eve of Valentine’s, the Vietnamese new year, and President’s Day, an alluring Viet lady named Vo saved the day and night for the perennially hard-struggling Oakland Symphony.

A helter-skelter concert program and an army of fervent volunteers trolling the aisles for donations didn’t deter from a rousing finale of Vietnamese music that enkindled the faithful scattered around the huge Paramount Theatre Feb. 12. By the time the encore rolled around, with half the crowd singing the very western “Rolling in the Deep” credited to the pop singer Adele (Adkins), Vo-&-symphony had the audience firmly and astonishingly in their corner.

For once, Mr. Kipling, east met west and thrived!!

The hall was transformed into a colorful Vietnamese pageant well before Van-Anh Vo premiered her touching half-hour long “Lullaby for a Country,” with floor-length traditional pink dresses and, out front, flags jubilantly waving. Inspired by tunes from the old country, there was an alternation of sad songs, and instrumentals on the psaltery dan tranh, which is related to the Japanese koto.

Ms. Vo has transported her unique blending of vocals with instrumental virtuosity from Hanoi to the Bay Area, enriching the local cultural cornucopia while embodying a culture spanning the Pacific. In the expressiveness of performing a few measures, she breaks down musical walls and renders her music accessible.

In a lucid soprano, Vo also sang poetry in dream-like, melismatic fashion, perusing themes of love, yearning, sorrow and “new dawn,” which may or may not be related to the turbulent history of her former homeland. The songs and their bent pitches were compelling, even to an uninitiated westerner, doubly so when echoed on the dan bau monochord instrument. The sparse orchestration provided subtle pedalpoints, cello voices, a sterling horn solo (Andrea Plesnarski), and a soulful duet contribution of harp (Randall Pratt).

The piece came vividly to life in the exuberant “New Dawn” finale, when virtuoso Vo’s hands on the dan tranh became a blur, ever faster, in a rhythmic jam session. By the end, even the audience was doing a clap-along accompaniment.

Earlier, some 18 members of her Fremont-based Young Ensemble joined her arrangement of a Viet medley: “Rice Drums,” “King Parade” and “Black Horse.”

The rest of the evening was in western music, with the sharp contemporary outbursts of “Flash” by P.Q. Phan, often sounding like Stravinsky on LSD. I admired the courage of Conductor Michael Morgan and the orchestra as they struggled with the diffuse acoustics of the huge hall (as well as with the amplification system), providing less-than-ideal precision and strength. They rendered Britten’s “Young Person’s Guide to the Orchestra,” which was saddled with a silly tack-on narration, and Dvorak’s effusive Bohemian “Carnival Overture.”

DRAMATIZED FUND-RAISING—This was a pictorial first that you wouldn’t soon forget: Before starting, Morgan had the orchestral players hold up multi-colored cards to show financing sources. They demonstrated emphatically that close to a third of the OS budget has to come from donations.

Van-Anh Vo performing in her “Lullaby for a Country” (world premiere), with the Oakland Symphony Feb. 12, Paramount Theatre, Oakland. And other works, under baton of Michael Morgan. For O.S. info: (510) 444-0802, or go online.

©Paul Hertelendy 2016
Paul Hertelendy has been covering the dance and modern-music scene in the San Francisco Bay Area with relish — and a certain amount of salsa — for years.
These critiques appearing weekly (or sometimes semi-weekly, but never weakly) will focus on dance and new musical creativity in performance, with forays into books (by authors of the region), theater and recordings by local artists as well.

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