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NY Phil in Vietnam

Evening gowns and motorcycle helmets were the contrasting attire as the New York Philharmonic played its first concert in Vietnam.

People watch pianist Emanuel Ax of the New York Philharmonic playing Beethoven’s piano concerto No. 4 on a large screen outside Hanoi Opera House

Inside the cosy French colonial-era Hanoi Opera House, a mixed crowd of Vietnamese and Westerners, some in evening dress, filled almost every seat beneath a large chandelier.

Except for the occasional click of a camera shutter, they watched in mesmerized silence as the black-clad orchestra performed Beethoven’s Piano Concerto No. 4 conducted by Alan Gilbert, with Emanuel Ax on the piano.

Outside, dozens of Vietnamese, many of them young, pulled up on their motor scooters to watch the performance free on two giant screens that flanked the concert hall.

A never-ending stream of constantly honking traffic flowed past them but could not drown out the towering banks of loudspeakers and the melodies which lingered in the night air.

Do Van Son, 50, a motorcycle taxi driver, parked his bike in front of the screen, not caring that he would give up much of the 100,000 dong (5.5 dollars) he usually earns in a night.

“What I have is music, and a loss of income today does not mean anything,” Son said, admitting there are not many classical music fans in his country.

“This is a special case, when a world-famous orchestra comes to Vietnam.”

Mai Suong, a fourth-year violin student, also watched outside with several other students from the local music conservatory.

“The performance was great,” she said. “I dream to become one of them of course, but I don’t think I’m good enough.”

Gilbert, who became the orchestra’s music director last month, said before the concert that, for him, coming to Vietnam was the “realization of a dream come true.”

On Friday night the audience shouted its approval and applauded for about three minutes at the conclusion of the concerto, prompting Ax to return for an encore piano solo.

Officials from Vietnam and the United States said the Friday and Saturday concerts will help to further cement ties that have grown diplomatically, economically and culturally since the two countries normalized relations in 1995 two decades after their war ended.

But US ambassador Michael Michalak said it was not fair to compare the Philharmonic’s visit to Vietnam with its trip to Pyongyang in February 2008, when the orchestra was the largest US delegation in years to visit North Korea.

Fast-modernizing Vietnam has a booming market economy and is increasingly courting international exposure.

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