9/11 Ode to Freedom
Like the Roman poet, Horace, who used odes to write meditative lyrics, or Igor Stravinsky, who transposed Lorca Massine’s ballet ode into music, Le Van Khoa has written a lyrical “Elegy” to commemorate the victims of 9/11.
“I chose to express pain I felt at the attacks in New York and at the Pentagon, which I saw as an act of war. I am a victim of war myself, over the loss of Vietnam to the Communists in 1975. Now it’s a loss to the terrorists. I want to share my feelings with my brothers and sisters, who opened their arms to me when I first came here.”
Like Homer in his epic Iliad and Odyssey, Khoa, a “boat people” refugee, describes in verse his remembrances of the exodus of the Vietnamese who fled Communism 35 years ago. “The main theme of my show is to call for freedom for Vietnam and for the other countries living under autocratic rule.”
Le Van Khoa has written over 600 compositions and arrangements in many genres for voice and orchestra since the 1950s. The 50-member Kiev Symphony Orchestra from Ukraine, the 70-chorus members, including members of the Washington area Community Chorus, and singers from California will perform classical pieces by Tchaikovsky, Rimsky-Korsakov, and others as well as by Khoa himself at the Rachel Schlesinger Concert Hall and Arts Center, NOVA Community College, Alexandria campus, on the evening of 9/11.
The program will also feature “God Bless America,” “Prayer” by Sergei Taneyev, and excerpts from the Tchaikovsky Violin Concerto, among others.
East-West Techniques in Harmony
Khoa will try to bring together the choruses and orchestra to deliver through music the memory of 9/11 and pay adequate tribute to the victims. The Elegy will express the lingering sadness that gripped our collective consciousness that day. “Cum Sancto Spiritu,” J.S. Bach’s Mass in B minor, widely hailed as the composer’s supreme achievement, articulates his conception.
The program will highlight the Kiev-style Bandura, a Ukrainian 40-string instrument developed in the early 1900s, combining elements of a zither and lute, in two Vietnamese folk tunes.
Taras Yanystsky, a Bandura player, was asked if Slavonic tunes have anything in common with a different country music and Buddhism. “In general,” he replied, “all authentic music is interlaced in its roots. So it’s close to our music and it has a lot in common with Ukrainian music.”
Khoa says this will be the first time that a national instrument from Ukraine has played Vietnamese tunes. “This is to unite different cultures through music and to bring traditional Vietnamese music out of its isolation and into harmony with western mainstream music.”
Svyatoslava Semchuck, professor of violin at the National Tchaikovsky Conservatory of Music in Kiev explained, “Only when you get to know your own national music, folk music, “the soul of the nation,” will you be able to understand a foreign culture. A real musician feels in his heart the love that a composer feels. Music has no boundaries.”
Finally, from Alla Kulbaba, Principal Conductor of the Ukrainian National Opera: “Khoa’s music wields such delicacy, compassion, kindness and intimacy, but he is also a talented symphonist, not only a composer of light music. He uses European modes and thematic, folk melodies and songs to create a symbiosis. If there were only national tunes, It’s not easy for Europeans to understand. But when it’s a combination of cultures, using thematic, folk melodies and songs it brings far-flung cultures closer.”
Like Sergei Taneyev, the Russian gold medal pianist who entered the Moscow Conservatory of Music at age 9, Khoa wants to further national music. Both composed piano preludes, symphonies, concertos, chorals and vocal music. Both were passionate lovers of music at a young age.
“The history of western music gives us the answers. Apply to Russian song the workings of the mind that were applied to the songs of western nations, and we will have our own national music… The Europeans took centuries to get there, we need far less.” Those were the words that Taneyev wrote to his master, Tchaikovsky, in 1891.
Khoa said something similar to a group of fans: “We should apply western music tradition to our own national music. Art should be universal. Creativity, brotherhood, and sanctity should be shared among music lovers of all nations.”
A Life of Creativity
Khoa was born to a poor family in Can Tho province, south of Saigon. At a young age, he taught himself to read music with a French music book and play piano keys drawn on a wooden table. His dream came alive when, at 18, he was able to practice on a real piano inside a Seventh Day Adventist church, where an American Pastor and his wife taught him how to play the piano and how to conduct.
At 19, Khoa submitted two songs and won two prizes in a national contest in Vietnam. He was featured in the Free World Magazine and became host of children’s shows on national television. Easygoing and resourceful, he was an instant celebrity. Presenting shows with large orchestras and chorals, he was a rarity in a time of unrest, with the Vietnam War raging around him.
From that day to this, he has been self-supporting; he does not have sponsors for his shows. Besides working as a music teacher to earn a living, Khoa found time to compose, arrange, transcribe, and orchestrate.
Contrary to the lingering and sadness of most Vietnamese music, Khoa’s compositions, although heartbreaking, radiate optimism and peace. However, moments of desperation have also touched him. In time of trouble and sleeplessness, he wrote “Lullaby” for Ngoc Ha, his wife to be. At another time, in danger of dying of tuberculosis, he wrote “Memory” as a farewell to life.
Khoa has not stopped creating. Today, this teacher, journalist, photographer, cultural festival planner, husband and father of three daughters, leads a hectic life. He composes at home, on airplanes, in restaurants, at doctors’ offices. He speaks with his hands fluttering, tapping invisible keys, conducting in a virtual space.
Dr. Hung Nguyen, an anesthesiologist in California and a graduate of the National Conservatory of Music in Saigon, is one of Khoa’s fans. “The moment I listened to his Vietnam 1975 symphony, I was immediately blown away! The majestic opening almost makes me forget the humble, rural origins of the main theme. The development that follows is so fluid, so rational, that the entire first movement sounds like one unified entity. How can such a beautiful piece utilize only five notes?”
To which the author replied, “Just look at Chopin, Debussy, or Liszt. They also use the pentatonic scale.”
Andrew Wailes, Conductor of the Royal Melbourne Philharmonic Orchestra, Australia, added, “The Hymn to Freedom (the last movement) unfolds a celebration of a new life and celebration of a new country and a new beginning. It is very grand, very heavily orchestrated and very triumphant. Powerful, great piece of work to be enjoyed.”
“My mission,” says Khoa, “is to help people understand each other better and to enrich the cultures of the world in the hope that it will bring people closer together. To find peace, not to wage war. I want my music to make a difference in people’s lives. I hope that the Concert Hall in Alexandria will reverberate with a full range of human emotions.”