HANOI - As the final emphatic notes of Brahms’ Violin Concerto in D Major reverberate through Hanoi’s Grand Opera House, conductor Tetsuji Honna turns his baton toward soloist Bui Cong Duy wearing an expression verging on fatherly pride.
And as the music gives way to enthusiastic applause, Honna communicates that same benevolent countenance to each member of the Vietnam National Symphony Orchestra (VNSO), which the internationally acclaimed Japanese maestro unabashedly refers to as family.
“Vietnam has become much more than just some second home,” says Honna, the VNSO’s musical director and principal conductor, who settled in Vietnam in 2001. “The people here, the work I have been allowed to do. … I feel very, very lucky.”
In reality, and by any measure, fortune has played little part in Honna’s success.
During a career spanning almost four decades, he has worked with some of the globe’s most prominent operas and orchestras. In Japan he has held countless positions, including principal conductor of the Japan Chamber Orchestra. Overseas work includes posts in Britain, Austria, Hungary, China and Italy, where he had a stint with the acclaimed Filarmonica della Scala in Milan.
Along the way, he has shared the stage with leading soloists, including Argentinian pianist Martha Argerich and French-Cypriot pianist and composer Cyprien Katsaris.
In the opera world, he is well-known for the breadth of his music directing, which includes works by Mozart and more modern ones such as “The Orpheus of Hiroshima” by Yasushi Akutagawa. And, among a catalog of awards, he won first place at the Budapest International Conducting Competition (1992) and second prize at the Arturo Toscanini International Conducting Competition (1990).
Yet, by his own admission, Honna’s journey to the VNSO does have a touch of the magical realism about it.
In 2000, while he was a permanent guest conductor with the Nagoya Philharmonic Orchestra, Honna visited Hanoi during an Asia-wide “Toyota Classics” tour. Upon arrival in the Vietnamese capital, it was as though his destiny was written, not just in the stars, he says, but in the streetlights.
“Driving through the city on the way to the hotel I noticed this beautiful, warm color in the streetlights, a yellowy-orange hue that reminded me of Van Gogh’s famous painting ‘Cafe Terrace at Night’ — a painting I have loved since I was a child, when I often dreamed of being a painter,” says Honna, who is a native of Koriyama, Fukushima Prefecture.
“In those days there were many lamps like that in the city and they gave me a profound sense of nostalgia, and serendipity, I suppose.”
That feeling of fate continued on his second day, when the orchestra visited Hanoi’s historic opera house for rehearsals.
“I stood on the stage and noticed the date 1911 carved on the wall above me,” says Honna, who played guitar and piano as a child and studied trombone at the Tokyo University of the Arts, where he also secretly studied conducting on the side. “Immediately I recalled that that was the same year (Austrian composer) Gustav Mahler died. From that moment I had a clear vision.”
Just how perfectly aligned were the stars was confirmed at the conclusion of the Nagoya Philharmonic’s performance the following day, when then VNSO cello soloist and deputy director Ngo Hoang Quan made an unusual visit to the maestro’s dressing room.
“He knocked on the door and the first thing he said was ‘please help us,'” says Honna. “He warned me they couldn’t pay very much, but immediately I said ‘yes.’ I was so happy because I really wanted to come back.”
Almost two decades on, Honna’s love affair with Vietnam has continued to blossom. While the yellow lamps are gradually being superseded by strip lights, he expresses particular fondness for the way Vietnamese avidly protect customs and traditions, not least of all the folk music that he says permeates every region of the country.
“Within each of the provinces there are many volumes of songs that have been passed down through the ages. I am told that with Hungary, Vietnam has the biggest collection of folk songs in the world. There’s a wonderful desire to protect and preserve such heritage. This contrasts with somewhere like Japan, which has lost much of its old musical traditions.”
Orchestral music, however, has a much shorter history in Vietnam, he says. Although Hanoi’s opera house was built during the French colonial era, it was mostly part of a larger plan to replicate Parisian landmarks throughout French Indochina.
Indeed, according to Honna, while orchestral music is more appreciated today, it is still not a deeply ingrained part of the cultural consciousness, which has resulted in challenges during his work with the VNSO.
“Frankly, it was a shock for me at first,” says Honna, who spends considerable time studying original music scores to attain a greater understanding of the composer’s intent. “Performances lacked color, character — even elementary timing. If one musician was playing say two bars late, nobody seemed to notice.”
Undeterred, Honna chose to focus on the positives. In one sense, he says, his charges demonstrated an unusually high level of independence that can benefit an orchestra.
“I soon found out that on the occasions when they got it right the sound was unique and special. It was a quality of sound unlike anything I had heard before. I think that independence of mind somehow enables a unique sensibility. This is an unbelievably charming feature that I love and made me feel there’s huge potential here.”
His dream — “to make the VNSO … the kind of orchestra with which world-famous conductors and soloists aspire to perform” — is appreciated by VNSO members such as violinist Duy.
“We have been working together for many years now, and thanks to him we have been able to grow,” says Duy, who has variously been referred to as “Asia’s gem” and “the Asian hope” for his achievements as a violinist. “Yet, he is careful to make us feel we’re developing together. We’re like a family.”
Tetsuji Honna will conduct the VNSO at The Symphony Hall, Osaka, on July 18, and at Suntory Hall, Tokyo, on July 20. For more information, visit bit.ly/VNSOjapan.
Name: Tetsuji Honna
Hometown: Koriyama, Fukushima Prefecture
Key moments in career:
1979 — Makes professional debut, conducting the Kumamoto University orchestra, aged 23
1985 — Takes second prize at the Tokyo International Music Competition for conducting
1989 — Studies with Amsterdam’s Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra and the London Sinfonietta
1992 — Wins first prize and the Bartok prize of the Budapest International Conducting Competition
2000 — Visits Hanoi as part of an Asia-wide orchestral tour and the following year moves there permanently to work with Vietnam National Symphony Orchestra
Words to live by: “Always follow your destiny.”