None of the Montanans spoke Vietnamese, nor did any of the Vietnamese students speak English. Yet, they communicated so perfectly that within a few days they combined to perform the complicated Schumann's Symphony No. 4.
The event was so powerful it inspired an hour-long documentary, "Without Words," which will debut at 7 p.m. Thursday, Feb. 10, on KUSM, Montana PBS.
Montana PBS will hold a screening of "Without Words" at 7:30 p.m. Monday, Feb. 7, at Reynolds Recital Hall on the MSU campus. The event is free and open to the public.
"It really is true what they say about music being the universal language," said Scott Sterling, producer and director of "Without Words."
Sterling was one of three photographers and one sound recordist who were a part of a musical delegation from MSU that traveled throughout Southeast Asia two years ago performing concerts in Vietnam, Thailand and Singapore.
Shuichi Komiyama, MSU professor of music and conductor of the MSU Symphony, organized and led the group of 67 musicians, additional 22 support crew on the 10,000 mile tour. Before he came to MSU to teach saxophone and jazz and conduct the symphony and chamber groups, Komiyama had been a conductor in several countries in Southeast Asia. In fact, he met his wife, pianist Asuza Komiyama, in Thailand. Because of their connections in the area, the Komiyamas were able to arrange several concerts and travel opportunities for the MSU group.
The Vietnamese portion of the trip was groundbreaking: MSU was the first American university musical ensemble to play in Hanoi for more than 50 years. Throughout the tour, MSU gave musical instruments to the conservatories and musical schools that they visited.
Komiyama said classical music is highly valued in Southeast Asia and the population is sophisticated about music. Yet, live concerts are unusual, so the MSU performances were valued. Nearly all of the concerts were met with standing-only crowds and several encores. Komiyama said he also knew that MSU's young musicians were talented, yet would grow personally and professionally by the challenges of the tour.
"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."
Sterling said that as soon as he heard about the tour, he knew it would make a good documentary.
"I liked the idea immediately because it was a real story with some interesting elements: personal stories, relationships, exotic settings and a unique opportunity," Sterling said.
He said he was not disappointed. While nearly every day of the three-week tour was dramatic and visually beautiful, the joint concert of MSU and Vietnamese students at the Viet Nam National Academy of Music in Hanoi was the most memorable to him.
Sterling explained that because the student musicians from both MSU and Vietnam were all born after the Viet Nam war, and the average age of Vietnamese is 30 years old.
"So, it was a different world and experience from the Viet Nam of the war years," he said. Yet, the power of the music at the concert was healing, he said.
Sterling was even more impressed having watched the two groups of musicians rehearsing prior to the concert.
"Vietnamese is so different from English," he said. "It's not like if the students were in Europe and a few of the words would be the same. Yet, it is true what they say about the power of music to communicate and make friends and build bridges in a way no other medium can."
Sterling said the production crew shot more than 90 hours of stunning video and surround sound audio, which he edited down to one hour. He describes the documentary as the human story behind the abstract statistics of politics and wars, shedding light on new frontiers and new alliances between former foes Local composer and musician Eric Funk, who also is an adjunct music professor at MSU, served as co-writer of the film.
"The sound and imagery are amazing. And, it is a powerful and moving story. We hope our viewers enjoy it."
Watch "Without Words" online at http://watch.montanapbs.org/video/1789532359/.
Scott Sterling (406) 994-6202, email@example.com