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In ‘Vietnam War Suite,’ two musicians remember turbulent time

José Adán
José Adán

Cuban-born classical guitarist José Adán fought in Vietnam, and he remembers the war vividly.

“The story of the Vietnam vet doesn’t end when he leaves Vietnam,” Adán said in a recent phone interview. “There were things yet to unfold in his life that would not happen until he returned home, such as the rejection from friends, peers, family, strangers, as a result of having answered the nation’s call to arms.”

A few years ago, Adán was struck by an idea for a piece of music that would portray not only the mental state of a soldier active during the Vietnam War, but also the emotional climate of the United States at that time. He entrusted the task of writing the piece to American composer Fred DeSena, who looked at the war from a different perspective.

“I was not going no matter what they did to me,” DeSena recalls of his own reaction to the draft. “I thought it was wrong, and wasn’t about to get killed or kill somebody.” He escaped the war by deliberately failing his physical.

Regardless of ideology, Adán and DeSena agree on the fear and anger that gripped the country at that time. DeSena promised Adán he would write the piece if it could be performed with an orchestra, and Rodester Brandon, musical director of the Miami Wind Symphony, agreed to conduct.

The result is A Vietnam War Suite, a concerto for two guitars and wind orchestra, which the symphony will perform Sunday afternoon as part of its Veteran’s Day concert, “A Soldier’s Story,” at Florida International University.

The piece is divided into four movements. “The first one is called ‘Prelude,’” Adán says, “and it’s set to represent the era, the setting of life in the U.S. during that time.”

Musically, the piece was inspired in part by one of DeSena’s favorite songs, Midnight Confessions, a 1968 hit by The Grass Roots. “You may not hear it,” he says. “But I put it in there because it will have an effect.” The guitars are woven into the fabric of the piece. “The music does not sound like the 1960s, because I hate to be too obvious,” says DeSena.

The second movement, “Ambush,” portrays the soldier’s mental state. Distorted versions of the national anthems of North Vietnam and the United States can be heard simultaneously in the guitar parts.

“I was trying to convey feelings of anxiety and real fear as a portrait of a state of mind rather than an event.” DeSena explains. “The terror of walking through a thick jungle, going down the Mekong Delta and there are people waiting for you, and you can’t see them, and all of a sudden all hell breaks loose.”

Lamentation follows, an elegy for lost lives. “The third movement was José’s conception,” DeSena says, “and it’s built around a profound melodic line that pervades the movement. It’s sad and beautiful.”

The final movement, “Homecoming,” subtly references the American Civil War song, When Johnny Comes Marching Home.

“I wanted it to represent irony,” Adán explains. “When we returned home, we weren’t welcome. Today we support the troops, and we welcome them back home. Back then, there was no such thing. We had to go at it alone.”

ArtburstMiami.com is a nonprofit source of South Florida dance and performing arts coverage.

If you go

What: ‘A Vietnam War Suite,’ with guitarists Jorge Gómez and Federico Bonacossa, part of the Miami Wind Symphony’s Veteran’s Day concert, ‘A Soldier’s Story.’

When: 4 p.m. Sunday

Where: Wertheim Auditorium, Florida International University, 10910 SW 17th St., Miami

Info: $20, miamiwindsymphony.com or 305-905-2415

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