Vietnamese musicians learn from an American master

Brittni DeHart

From The Associated Press

The conductor of the New York Philharmonic wielded his baton as an instrument of diplomacy Thursday. His words, however, weren’t all sweet.

“You’ve learned the rhythm wrong!” Alan Gilbert told students at the Hanoi Conservatory of Music as they struggled through a tough section of Beethoven’s Seventh Symphony. “It’s just wrong!”

America’s oldest orchestra performs in Vietnam for the first time this week as part of an Asian tour that has included stops in Tokyo and Seoul. The Philharmonic will play Beethoven’s Seventh on Friday and Saturday at Hanoi‘s ornate 590-seat opera house, which is nearly a century old.

Gilbert, the 42-year-old conductor who took over the orchestra last month, held the students to his usual high standards during a master class, part of the Philharmonic’s outreach during the tour.

He stopped them repeatedly to correct their timing.

“Do you understand the word habit?” he asked the students. “You have the habit of going fast.”

If his words were direct, his tone was friendly.

Gilbert worked up a sweat as he led the students, raising his arms, flicking his wrists, cocking his head and lunging forward so energetically it sometimes seemed his glasses might fly off.

“It’s hard work,” he said during a break.

The biggest challenge for the students, he said, is improving their rhythm.

“They play the notes very well, but they’re not always placed in time just where they should be,” Gilbert said.

It was easy to hear the students improve as they absorbed his advice.

“This is a great opportunity for us,” said Nguyen Thu Binh, 32, a violinist. “He pays attention to the smallest details. Everything must be very precise.”

The performance in Vietnam will be another first for the New York Philharmonic in Asia. Under Gilbert’s predecessor, Lorin Maazel, the orchestra became the first major American cultural group to perform in North Korea in February 2008 and the largest U.S. delegation to visit its longtime foe.

The Philharmonic will open Friday’s concert with the Vietnamese and American national anthems. Saturday’s show will be broadcast live on television. The cheapest seats are nearly $100, more than the monthly income of many Vietnamese.

U.S. Ambassador Michael Michalak described the visit as cultural diplomacy that would complement the growing political, economic and military ties between the two nations, which normalized relations 14 years ago.

After putting the students through their paces for nearly two hours, Gilbert showed that he could be a diplomat too.

When they played a section of the symphony with the requisite rhythmic flair, he blew them a kiss and gave them two thumbs up.