Montana State University

MSU Symphony finds music unites West and East

July 20, 2009 -- Carol Schmidt, MSU News

Shuichi Komiyama conducts the MSU Symphony's recent performance at the cathedral on the campus of Assumption University in Bangkok, Thailand. The performance was part of the symphony's three-week, 10,000 mile groundbreaking tour of Southeast Asia. They were the first university musical group to play at many of the venues. Photo courtesy of Shuichi Komiyama.   High-Res Available

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The geography, culture and climate of Montana and Southeast Asia could not be more different, even if they were on separate planets. Yet for the 67 musicians in the Montana State University Symphony, which recently became the first college musical group to tour many of the venues in Vietnam, Thailand and Singapore, there was one unifying element.

"I know it may sound cheesy, but the old saying about how music is the international language really is true," said Angela Andrikopolous, a cellist from Billings.

Andrikopolous was one of the MSU Symphony musicians to complete a three-week tour of the three countries. And while she can cite a variety of resonant memories of the trip, the defining moment came when she was one of the MSU students asked to play the Schumann Fourth Symphony with the Vietnam National Conservatory of Music in Hanoi. As Andrikopolous tells it, a cellist from the orchestra who spoke no English, came to where Andrikopolous was sitting and shared her music and stand with Andrikopolous, who spoke no Vietnamese.

"She knew the piece well, and I did not know it, but she helped me and we just played," said Andrikopolous, who recently graduated from MSU with a music degree. "It hit me then, that it's true what people often say that music is the international language. That might seem trite and overused, but it was one of those moments when I realized how true it is. Music is a great communications tool."

For three weeks the members of the MSU Symphony communicated via music with thousands of listeners. Greg Young, MSU vice provost for undergraduate education, also made the trip. Young, who is also a clarinetist, said audiences in all three countries were very appreciative of the MSU performances.

"Probably the most overt praise from an audience is rhythmic clapping, demanding an encore," Young said. "This was most gratifying, especially when it occurred after the first encore."

"We were treated like royalty in all three countries," said Corey Burch, a cellist from Issaquah, Wash. who was also the emcee for the performances. "We (had been) wondering how we would be received, mostly because of politics. But (the reception) was amazing. It was a pleasure to go to all three countries and be ambassadors for music, the state of Montana and Montana State University."

MSU's tour was the first time a college musical group was allowed into several of the venues, particularly in Vietnam, according to Shuichi Komiyama, an MSU music professor who is the director of the MSU Symphony and chief organizer of the trip. Komiyama has conducted for many years in Southeast Asia and said his friends and contacts made it possible for the MSU group to tour in places only recently open to those outside the country.

"When I was hired at MSU, I said that I would have large-scale goals," Komiyama said of taking 67 college musicians and an additional 22 support crew on a 10,000 mile tour. "This was the largest thing I could think of."

For example, the MSU Symphony played to standing room only in an amphitheater in a park on the Thai island of Phuket to great reviews from the local and national Thai press. Komiyama said the concert was magical, even though the setting was humid and particularly warm for the Montanans, who were dressed in tuxedos or long dresses. During the concert, bats swooped overhead, drawn by insects, and toads hopped on the grass in the light of the full moon.

"After the concert a man came up to me and thanked me for playing in the park for them," said Burch, who recently accepted a job as band director in Sidney, Mont. "He had never before been to a concert and had only heard music on movies and the radio. He showed me his arms and they had goose bumps from our music."

However, while live concerts might be unusual in Southeast Asia, classical music is highly valued there and the population is sophisticated about music, Komiyama said. He said that was a part of the give-and-take that helped the MSU students grow as students and people.

"This part of the world is intensely engaged and committed to training classical musicians, and supporting the endless survival of it," Komiyama said. He said that the MSU students learned a great deal from their Southeast Asian colleagues about performing protocol.

The MSU students also conducted a workshop in Phuket attended by 100 students of every age. And in Hanoi and Bangkok, the MSU Symphony gave 10 instruments to Asian students.

"The trip definitely changed many of our students' perspectives on culture and life," Komiyama said. "A few of our students seemed to grow up instantly."

Matt Makeever of Bozeman, who plays principal trumpet with the MSU Symphony, said the tour was "an incredible, life-changing experience."

"By far the biggest part of my memories was being able to play with fantastic musicians," he said. "Their strings were fantastic and they can play dynamics we can't."

Komiyama enlisted sponsors and organized fundraisers, but each student was required to come up with $2,500, or half the cost of the trip.

"But it was money well spent," Makeever said. "I wouldn't have traded it for anything."

A film crew from KUSM, Montana PBS, also made the tour. "The Sound of Progress," a Montana PBS documentary film portrait of the trip, is expected to air in the fall.

To see other stories about the MSU Department of Music, go to:

Shuichi Komiyama (406) 994-5770,