Prashanth Parameswaran | The Asianist
Harmony with Vietnam
Published: Sunday, November 13, 2011
Updated: Monday, November 14, 2011 06:11
Last month, I had the distinct pleasure of hearing the Vietnam National Symphony Orchestra (VNSO) perform at Boston Symphony Hall in its first ever visit to the United States. They did not disappoint. The orchestra, led by its animated Japanese music director and principal conductor Tetsuji Honna, put on a spirited performance with a unique blend of Vietnamese folk music and classic compositions from the West. The very best of Vietnam was on display, from the vibrant colors of the ao dai national costume to the graceful hand movements of award−winning violinist Le Hoai Nam and then melodies of legendary Vietnamese composer Dam Linh. The historic performance was also a product of cultural exchange diplomacy between the United States and Vietnam. VNSO's "First Harmony Tour to the USA 2011" reciprocated the New York Philharmonic's first ever visit to Hanoi in 2009, where it performed at the Hanoi Opera House, home of the VNSO. Tran Nhu Son, the Deputy Consul General of Vietnam in San Francisco, was quoted in the concert program: "This is a very significant and great opportunity to strengthen cultural exchanges between Vietnam and the United States, making the people of the two countries more understanding of each other's contemporary music life". And Mr. Honna himself told me that performing in the United States had been a long−cherished wish for the VNSO and struck an emotional chord for many of the Vietnamese musicians. The exchange also embodies the overall trajectory of U.S.−Vietnam relations. Just 16 years after the normalization of ties, Washington and Hanoi have managed to overcome the bitter past of the Vietnam War and forge one of the most important partnerships between the United States and Southeast Asia today, exemplifying the very peace and tolerance between peoples the VNSO emphasized as its performance theme. Cooperation has taken off in politics, trade, culture and even the military realm with an agreement signed on research collaboration and exchange in military medicine earlier this year. Key differences persist — particularly on human rights — but they are increasingly becoming the exception rather than the norm in the relationship. If Vietnam continues to be one of the fastest growing emerging economies and concerns about a rising China persist, both countries may be able to strengthen their "strategic partnership" even further in the coming years. Indeed, when former U.S. President Bill Clinton, who presided over U.S.−Vietnam normalization, mistakenly told an audience at Tufts University earlier this month that Vietnam was America's "most important ally in Southeast Asia" (a term usually reserved for formal U.S. alliances such as those with Japan or Thailand), it could have been as much a Freudian slip as it was a minor gaffe. Discussions between U.S. and Vietnamese officials these days, including those going on this week at the Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation meeting in Honolulu with Mr. Clinton's wife, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, tend to focus boldly on how to "take the relationship to the next level." That might seem ambitious at first glance. But so might the idea of a strategic partnership between Washington and Hanoi 16 years ago. Or the notion of the VNSO playing in Boston Symphony Hall decades ago when it was weathering through financial and psychological national struggles after the Vietnam War. And yet they happened. Much like an orchestra, various instruments eventually cohered to produce a harmonious outcome with the aid of an able conductor.
Prashanth Parameswaran is a student at The Fletcher School studying international relations. He can be reached at Prashanth.Parameswaran@tufts.edu.