By Scott MacClelland
FARKHAD KHUDYEV has a keen ear for what his Youth Music Monterey student orchestras can do, and a keen vision for unusual programs. On Sunday in Carmel, the Junior Youth Orchestra outdid itself in Corelli’s Folia Variations, the “Montagues and Capulets” scene from Prokofiev’s Romeo and Juliet and Saint-Saëns’ Danse macabre. I have never heard this junior orchestra play better.
But what followed was completely without precedent: guest artist—composer, virtuoso instrumentalist, singer, recording artist and Emmy winner— Võ Vân Ánh (also known as Vanessa Vo) was front and center for 45 minutes performing with the senior Honors Orchestra in her own original compositions and arrangements of traditional Vietnamese music. She has been a frequent collaborator with the Kronos Quartet and appeared with them at the 2013 Cabrillo Music Festival.
From a musical family, Vo specializes in such Vietnamese instruments as the 16-string zither (đàn tranh), bamboo xylophone (t’rưng) and monochord (đàn bầu), the latter two pictured with Vo. The monochord was plainly the most mysterious. It seemed that Vo wasn’t even touching the string because, from the audience perspective, you couldn’t see it. What you did see was a vertical lever at one end of its horizontal resonating box. (The lever was used to bend the pitch of the notes up or down.) So how do you get so many different pitches from a single string? The trick is to pluck the string (with a fingertip plectrum) while touching the string with the pinky finger at specific harmonic ‘nodes’ which act like frets on a guitar. This skill is unique to the instrument and, in Vo’s hands, beguiling in its beauty and nuance. (For the record, her instruments and singing voice were amplified.)
Vo’s Reflections on My Own, getting its US premiere in this concert, was a hybrid of concerto and song. Beginning vocally, to words adapted from an 18th century Vietnamese poem (The Lament of a Soldier’s Wife), over a bed of orchestral string sonorities and gentle percussion, Vo intoned until a solitary bassoon emerged. The context was so strong that the bassoon sounded as Vietnamese as anything to follow. Soon the orchestra gained animation and a stormy volume of sound, with exotic percussion punctuating pervasive pentatonic melodies over a sonorous and lush orchestration. Then Vo took up mallets for the xylophone and put on a display of fabulous virtuosity, including a solo cadenza. The 13-minute piece then returned to its gentle beginning of percussion and strings. The audience was rapt. As my seat companion remarked, “You could hear a pin drop.”
Then at her zither, Vo was joined by pianist Jasmine Mitchell (who attends Monterey High School) in Cherry Blossom, the first of two works by Do Bau. This was as seductive as quiet piano jazz, and, indeed, the piano part was so flavored. The two instruments sounded in perfect harmony. The orchestra returned for the US premiere of Do Bao’s Nirvana, softly at first then swelling in lush tonal harmonies even under the prevailing pentatonic. It and the following medley on popular Vietnamese folksongs were orchestrated by Vo, including a passage with chopsticks instead of bows—“Not just chopsticks, but Vietnamese chopsticks,” chimed Khudyev—used by all the string players. A sustained standing ovation was accorded Vo.
The concert concluded with the Honors Orchestra playing Tchaikovsky’s Romeo and Juliet fantasy overture, another fabulous reading carefully sculpted and phrased under Khudyev’s graceful yet articulate podium style. Another standing o by the sold-out Sunset auditorium ended a uniquely memorable YMM event.
Photos by Lawrence Ho