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LEGACIES OF WAR, 'SONG OF HEALING' : U.S. Veterans and Vietnamese Refugees Add Their Voices to the History Lessons

August 25, 1994|CORINNE FLOCKEN | Corinne Flocken is a free-lance writer who regularly covers Kid Stuff for The Times Orange County.

Almost 20 years after the fall of Saigon, United States participation in the Vietnam War remains a volatile subject, hotly debated by historians, politicians and armchair philosophers.

Adults may argue over the topic indefinitely, but the question remains: What do we tell our children about the war?

Next week, the Pacific Symphony Orchestra will host two events that could give families unique insight into the subject by better acquainting them with American men and women who fought in the war and the music and art of Vietnamese refugees who now make their home in Orange County. Both events are free.

On Tuesday at 7:30 p.m., members of Orange County's Vietnamese community will perform traditional music and folk songs in a workshop with PSO musicians, PSO music director Carl St.Clair and New York composer Elliot Goldenthal at Westminster's Vietnamese American Center of Arts and Letters.

On Wednesday at the Westin South Coast Plaza Hotel in Costa Mesa, Vietnam War veterans and their families will gather in an open forum, sharing letters, photographs, poems and personal experiences. Roxane Cohen Silver, a professor at UCI's School of Social Ecology who recently released a study of Vietnam veterans, will be the featured speaker, and Jan Allen Heath, an active participant in veterans' service groups, will act as moderator.

The programs are part of the creative process behind "A Song of Healing," the working title for the April, 1995, concert in which PSO will premiere Goldenthal's symphonic-choral work inspired by the Vietnam War, a piece that a PSO press release says will "address the broad feelings and emotions experienced by all those directly involved with the war, and those who live with its memories." The piece, which is not intended to make any political statement either for or against the war, is considered one of the few works that will address in music the same issues and emotions represented by the Vietnam Memorial in Washington, D.C., according to PSO executive director Louis Spisto.

The April 26 and 27 performances at the Orange County Performing Arts center fall within days of the 20th anniversary of the formal end of the war on April 30, 1975. The piece will blend Asian and Western musical styles and will be performed by PSO, Pacific Chorale soloists and a children's chorus of American and Vietnamese American youths.

Khoa Le, a Vietnamese composer, photographer and television producer, is coordinating the Aug. 30 event. Le is a member of PSO's recently formed Vietnamese Advisory Committee, which includes business and community leaders from Westminster's Little Saigon. Le fled Vietnam in 1975 and has lived in Orange County with his family since 1991.

Le says he has invited Vietnamese adults and teen-agers "from all walks of life" to perform traditional music and folk songs at the event and encourages non-Vietnamese to attend. Among the traditional instruments listeners may hear are the dan tranh , a 16-string instrument similar to a sitar, and the dan nguyet , a stringed instrument "shaped like a full moon," said Le. Because it is part of the development process for the symphony, the event will be more like an informal workshop than a traditional recital, as the artists may start and stop their performances periodically to interact with St.Clair, Goldenthal and Pacific Symphony musicians.

The father of three teen-age daughters, Le says he is disappointed by the way his children's textbooks and popular entertainment portray his homeland and the war that raged there across three decades; he considers the events on Tuesday and Wednesday opportunities to educate the public.

"I don't think most of the books and the movies expressed the war correctly, but I recognize that they only show (the authors') point of view," Le said. "Nobody can see everything."

Jan Heath also has a legacy of Vietnam he wants to pass on to his child. An engineer at Hughes Aerospace and Defense Corp., Heath was a 23-year-old newlywed when he was drafted into the Army and sent to Vietnam. He said his wartime experiences gave him a deep respect for his fellow soldiers. As founder of the Hughes Veterans Forum, an outreach program that aids veterans and unites them in community service projects, he is now committed to helping others recognize their contributions.

"The war is part and parcel of an era that changed an entire generation of American society," he said. "The legacy I would like to leave my son is that because of that era, his dad gained a lot of strength and talent through something that was extremely difficult for all concerned."

Although Wednesday's format is still under discussion, Heath says he expects veterans will be given several minutes to speak to the group. Spouses, children and other family members will be invited to contribute as well. Visitors should be aware that because of the content, there may be strong language or graphic imagery in some of the presentations.

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