Last night the YBCA Forum at the Yerba Buena Center for the Arts hosted the world premiere of a musical-theatrical epic conceived by composer Vân-Ánh Võ to mark the 40th anniversary of the end of the Vietnam War. This turned out to be a 40-minute staged suite entitled The Odyssey – from Vietnam to America, created with the support of a YBCA commission. Taking the Homeric epic of the title as a point of departure, Võ used her own music, performed primarily on three Vietnamese instruments, to explore the personal and spiritual journeys of the Vietnamese boat people, refugees from the former South Vietnam who fled the newly created Socialist Republic of Vietnam.
Võ performed as both vocalist and instrumentalist, as well as narrating a poem by Thích Nhất Hạnh, a Vietnamese Buddhist monk who had been a delegate to the Paris talks that led to the failed Paris Peace Accords of 1973, after which he was denied permission to return to Vietnam and has since lived as an exile in France. Võ’s instruments were all Vietnamese: the đàn tranh zither, the đàn bầu, monochord, and the t’rung xylophone. She performed her music as a member of The VA’V, a quartet whose other members are cellist and vocalist Alex Kelly, accordionist and vocalist Dan Cantrell, and percussionist (whose instruments included Taiko drums) Jimi Nakagawa.
The Odyssey was structured in five sections alternating between narrative and reflections. The section titles are “Leaving,” “Scorching Sun,” “Nước – My Country,” “Light of Hope,” “Beyond the Seas.” Each section, in turn, consisted of between two and four episodes. This made for a rather elaborate literary structure, which could not be followed in the program book because the lighting was too low. Nevertheless, there was a clear sense that the content was resonating with those Vietnamese in the audience, whose personal experiences had obviated the need for explanatory text. Those of us “on the outside” could appreciate that sensitive nerves were being touched; but we could also appreciate the artfulness of that touch, regardless of how unfamiliar both text and subtext were. This was particularly the case when the music was at its most intense and did not require “literal translation.” This involved not only Nakagawa’s explosive Taiko technique but also the haunting sonorities of Cantrell’s throat singing.
The second half of the program was a selection of six songs performed by The VA’V. Again the lights were too low to follow the program, but Võ provided her own descriptions of the selections. She had composed her own “Lullaby for a Country” to open the set, followed by her arrangements of two Vietnamese folk songs (the second with assistance from Jacob Garchik). There were also two world premieres by Matthew J. Fountain (“The Cycle”) and Osam Ezzeldin (“Day Dream”), both of which suggested that traditional Vietnamese instruments could be just as expressive in performing music from other countries. The most stunning examples of this latter principle, however, was an arrangement of George Gershwin’s “Summertime,” whose original vocal qualities were marvelously refracted through Võ’s monochord performance. The set then concluded with Võ’s “Go Hunting,” which provided an extended opportunity for inventive jamming by all members of her quartet.