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by Michele Barney Hutchins
Music is a universal language that transcends the physical, cultural or historical boundaries that separate the peoples of the world. Through music, people come together and in the process cross those real or perceived boundaries, uniting in understanding, meaning and passion.
Dan Perkins, professor of music and director of choral activities at PSU, can attest to this truth by virtue of his appointment as the principal guest conductor with the Vietnam National Opera and Ballet. During his sabbatical in spring 2005, Perkins spent three weeks in Ha Noi, Vietnam working with the adult chorus and orchestra, as well as a 60-voice children’s chorus.
“Our visit was very powerful and insightful,” says Perkins. “We were there right at the 30th anniversary of the end of the American-Vietnam War on April 30, known as ‘Re-unification Day.’ We performed twice in the Opera House in Ha Noi, which is a showplace modeled after European theaters. We also presented a concert in Halong Bay, one of the most phenomenal places I’ve ever been.”
As a result of his visit last spring, Perkins has been invited back as principal guest conductor by the director of the Vietnam National Opera and Ballet, Pham Hong Hai. Funded by the organization, he plans to travel to Vietnam two to three times a year, for three weeks at a time, for at least the next five years. His next visit is January 2006 and the program is all-American, which Perkins says, “is so far from the style of Vietnamese music.”
The personal exchange that develops in the process of creating ensemble is what Perkins enjoys the most. “They’re just so open and eager to learn and respond, and passionate about their art, their craft. It is who they are and what they do.” Perkins explains that the orchestra and chorus are all full-time employees of the government, but don’t make enough to live on, and supplement their income with other jobs.
“What is refreshing is they aren’t musically jaded,” notes Perkins, “so you take an idea to them and they are eager to explore and not just dismiss it because it is new. You might expect there would be some conflict because of the American-Vietnam War, but there is none. They are really proud of their culture, historical sites, art, traditional music, water puppets and all the uniquely Vietnamese elements. There is a real sense of cultural pride and honor.” (Water puppetry is performed in chest-deep water, with the water’s surface as a stage. The roots of this unique art form come from farmers who spent their days in flooded rice fields.)
The cultural exchange is further enhanced by the personal relationships that develop. Perkins says, “It is about making friends, having coffee with the concert master or the whole cello section. The friendship building enhances the music and it is very real, not just a photo opportunity.
“Making music is my passion and why I chose to be a conductor,” Perkins continues. “In creating ensemble you have to open your ear, mind and heart to everything around you. The process is fascinating and fulfilling.” Perkins wants to expand the opportunities for cultural and musical exchange, and hopes to take the PSU Chamber Singers in 2007.
Perkins first traveled to Vietnam in 2002 with the New Hampshire Friendship Chorus. It was then he met Hai, who had seen the performance and invited Perkins to be a guest conductor. Perkins concludes, “Mr. Hai is so remarkable. He has a complete lack of the ego that can be very typical in conductors. He is eager for input and ideas, and feeds off the energy from other conductors invited from all over the world, to enhance his orchestra’s own experience.”