Vietnam: Musicians perform 'Messiah'

The first performance of "Messiah" in Vietnam succeeded as a "bridge of harmony and friendship" as Church representatives joined Vietnamese musicians in planning and presenting the masterpiece oratorio by George Frideric Handel.

An audience that included doctors, government officials, members of the media and foreign visitors attended performances, sung in English on Oct. 28 and 29 in Hanoi's 800-seat Grand Community Theater Opera House.As the last "Amen" rang out from the 100 performing artists of the National Vietnam Symphony Orchestra and Chorus, soft-sandaled Vietnamese and visiting internationals spontaneously rose in ovation.

"I do not understand, but my heart is filled with love, peace and friendship," whispered Dr. Nguyen Manh Hung, chief of functional diagnosis at the Tran Hung Dow Hospital in Hanoi, after hearing "Messiah."

Preparations for this unprecedented concert began when Elder Stanley G. Steadman of Salt Lake City, Utah, put a copy of "The Messiah" in his luggage before leaving in January 1993 for his 12-month assignment to teach English in Hanoi.

Singing with the Mormon Tabernacle Choir for more than 30 years had proved to Elder Steadman that music can open doors where words cannot. He and his wife, Mavis H. Steadman, and LaVar and Helen R. Bateman of Provo, Utah, have been teaching English in Hanoi as Church representatives.

They all sang with the Vietnamese chorus.

As early as February, contacts were being made and doors were opened for the performance of selections from Handel's magnificent work. A major breakthrough occurred in a meeting with the dynamic conductor/composer, Mr. Do Dung of the National Vietnam Symphony Orchestra.

Although he had studied internationally, earning degrees in opera, ballet and choir, and was awarded the coveted title of Merited Artist by the Vietnamese State Government, Dung was not familiar with religious music. Yet, when handed the score of "Messiah," he instantly recognized it as a great classical masterpiece and was eager to pursue its performance.

There were still obstacles to overcome, according to Elder Steadman. "Could we get copies of the music and the orchestral score from America in time?" he said. "How much would it cost? The National Symphony Orchestra and Chorus is a professional organization. A budget for this performance was not available through the Minister of Culture of Vietnam. Would the Minister of Religion allow this concert? . . . The audience at any performance of `Messiah' would be more than 80 percent Buddhist. What would be their response?"

Permission to perform "Messiah" was obtained from the Vietnam Government Minister of Culture.

On the other side of the world, working simultaneously, Mike Otterson of the Church Public Affairs Department in Salt Lake City enthusiastically arranged financing for the production. Brother Bateman, a retired BYU professor, procured the orchestrations from the university.

On Aug. 2, in a dimly lit cement building, rehearsals began.

"We want to sound like an American chorus," the members insisted through an interpreter. Though all were professional solo singers, most had never learned choral techniques, and none spoke or understood English.

Rehearsals were scheduled three or four mornings a week during the intense summer heat. When the rains came, chorus members waded barefoot through ankle deep water to the entrance of the rehearsal hall. Payment was 70 cents per rehearsal.

"Perhaps the most poignant, thrilling moment for me," according to Sister Steadman, "came during a rehearsal when I heard the soprano soloist, Le Dung, the People's Artist, sing for the first time, `I Know That My Redeemer Liveth.' She sang every word with such conviction that it was like a testimony. She does not speak a word of English. When Ms. Dung finished, a great hush enveloped the room. We could not speak. Chorus members embraced each other. Tears ran down our cheeks."

On opening night, a banner emblazoned in the national Vietnamese colors of red and gold proclaimed: "The Messiah - Bridge of Harmony and Friendship." Inside on stage, sitting proudly and impressive, were the orchestra members in their new white performing suits and white satin dresses. The women chorus members wore the traditional Ao Dai, an elegant long formal Vietnamese dress.

A gala reception for 300 arranged by Sister Bateman followed the first evening's performance. Elder Kwok Yuen Tai, a member of the Seventy and first counselor in the Asia Area presidency, and his wife, Flora, were special guests from Hong Kong.

Bright colored helium balloons wafted gently over a table filled with refreshments. English students, government officials, reporters and friends attended.

To the experienced international visitor, the phrases "King of Kings, Lord of Lords," and "He shall reign forever and ever," were readily recognized. But for the members of the Vietnamese chorus and for the Vietnamese in the audience, the words were meaningless. Yet the message of Christ resounded deeply in their hearts.

At an honorary luncheon for the Batemans and Steadmans two days later, a video of the performance was played. When the trumpets signaled the beginning of "The Hallelujah Chorus," all were swept to their feet, singing in an outburst of love and emotion. Eyes filled with tears, bodies embraced, the miracle of "Messiah" again occurred.

"Through `Messiah: Bridge of Harmony and Friendship,' we have come together," stated Le Quang Vinh, journalist for the Loa Dong newspaper. "Once we were enemies, but now we are friends. As I looked at the Americans singing with the Vietnamese, I saw no differences. All were one."

Those who performed will never be the same. Those who attended will never be the same. This is the miracle of "Messiah."

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