The June 2020 trip is inspired by two events — one political and one personal: the 25th anniversary of restored relations between the United States and Vietnam, and maestro Osmo Vänskä’s new post as music director of the Seoul Philharmonic Orchestra. The orchestra will play at least four times in Vietnam, including performances in Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City, and once in Seoul.
The U.S. Embassy in Vietnam invited the orchestra to join in a 25th anniversary celebration, inspired in part by its work with young musicians and community members in Cuba and South Africa.
“This idea of really engaging in each of the cities where we perform has become a hallmark of this orchestra,” said its CEO, Michelle Miller Burns.
The orchestra has never been to Vietnam or Korea. “It’s uncharted territory for us,” Burns said. “It’s exciting.”
But other major orchestras have. In 2009, the New York Philharmonic performed in Hanoi, then a rare stop for U.S. orchestras, as part of an Asian tour.
The London Symphony Orchestra has played in Hanoi each of the last three years.
The Minnesota Orchestra tour, however, is shaping up as a more ambitious effort.
“No orchestra has done the amount of collaborations and exchanges we’re planning,” said Neeta Helms, president of Classical Movements, the touring company that worked with the orchestra on its 2015 tour of Cuba and 2018 trip to South Africa.
The Virginia-based company, which will act as creative adviser for Vietnam, is whittling the list of possible cities in which the orchestra might perform.
“In some cases they will be the first American orchestra to visit those cities,” Helms said via e-mail from Vietnam.
A tour to Vietnam must be sensitive to the “tortured history” between the two countries, she said. “While we never dwell on the past, we are careful to remember and navigate properly on behalf of our clients and always insist on looking forward together.”
Burns said the orchestra had considered Vietnam and South Korea as potential tour targets for some time.
“Vietnam has always felt like a natural fit to us,” she said, because of the large number of Southeast Asians who immigrated to Minnesota after the end of the Vietnam War in 1975. When Vänskä was named to the Seoul post in May, “the idea of bringing those two opportunities together in a single tour seemed really attractive.”
The catalyst came in July, via a formal letter from U.S. Ambassador Daniel Kritenbrink inviting the orchestra to perform in Hanoi as part of a celebration that includes a conference and a gala.
“The progress our countries have made in the last 25 years has been nothing short of astounding,” he wrote, “and we wish to use this anniversary to highlight the progress in all aspects of our relationship — political, military, economic, and cultural.
“Importantly, the orchestra can bring American musical excellence not only to grand performance halls, but also to smaller communities throughout Vietnam.”
A new work by a Vietnamese composer will be commissioned for the tour, Burns said.
The orchestra views the tour as a crowning moment in Vänskä’s career in Minnesota. His final season as music director will be 2021-22.
“Music has the extraordinary capacity to bring cultures together and to create understanding between people,” Vänskä said in a statement Thursday. “Our tours to Cuba and South Africa have been a very meaningful part of my tenure. … It will be an honor to represent the U.S. and perform in Vietnam, and I’m personally so gratified I’ll have the opportunity to introduce the Minnesota Orchestra to South Korean audiences.”
The tour kicks off June 24 at Seoul’s Lotte Concert Hall with a concert featuring Jean Sibelius’ Symphony No. 2 and Edvard Grieg’s Piano Concerto, which the orchestra performed at its season opener this fall.
Two days later, the orchestra will perform at the 600-seat Hanoi Opera House, completed in 1911 during French colonial rule and modeled on the Palais Garnier opera house in Paris. More details will be announced this winter.
As they have in Cuba and South Africa, the musicians will work with students in side-by-side rehearsals.
Classical Movements began working in Vietnam just months after President Bill Clinton re-established relations. The nation has changed dramatically, Helms said.
“We have seen new orchestras formed in the last few years,” she said. “New halls are being built, and music schools and conservatories are being expanded. Many young people are taking classical music lessons. Choirs which virtually never existed 10 years ago are now cropping up everywhere and getting better and better.”
The Minnesota Orchestra, which is a nonprofit, is committed to covering the cost of the tour through gifts, Burns said. The total is still being calculated, but the 11-day, five-concert tour to South Africa cost about $2.5 million, most of it covered by an anonymous donor. Board member Kathy Cunningham and her husband, Charlie, have given a “lead gift” for next year’s tour.
Before starting as CEO, Burns trekked with the orchestra to South Africa alongside her predecessor, Kevin Smith. She saw how that tour energized people within the organization and the broader community.
“It is a way to serve our artistic mission and really bring out the best in our organization.”