The harp was stuck at Hong Kong customs, the electricians were fishing for graft and the piano's pedals were broken. But despite the odds, the Asian Youth Orchestra made two remarkable appearances in Hanoi this week. They were remarkable not only because there had not been a concert by a full foreign orchestra in the city for more than 50 years, nor because their performance was worthy of any professional orchestra, but because both appearances happened at the same time, and to very different audiences. Inside the air-conditioned Cultural Palace Auditorium, an invited audience of 1,500 listened to an ambitious programme that included Mahler's Symphony No 1 in D, Mozart's Piano Concerto No 21 in C (K467) and Rossini's Overture to Semiramide. Outside, in the warm dusk, dozens of street-children - Asia's other youth - as well as some of Hanoi's older citizens, were able to watch their first concert al fresco in the plaza. As the energetic overture struck up in the concert hall, one pre-teen Artful Dodger outside stopped his various and dodgy business activities - which mainly involved begging for soft drinks and the glossy programme booklets that were given out free to ticket holders - and squatted transfixed before the large screen that was linked up to the television cameras inside the auditorium. I had noticed him before the concert started: he was energetic, mercurial, a charismatic leader of beggars. But as soon as the music started, he did not move at all. Another street urchin started conducting wildly with his hands. Not, it seemed, in a mocking way - he did not turn to his young friends for approval or admiration - but as a spontaneous reaction to the music and the images. Other grubby infants began to dance, collapsing in happy laughter and then dancing again. The group's bus drivers and guide, waiting outside, also watched the performance from the plaza: 'Are those really the kids we've been driving around Hanoi today?' one of them wondered aloud, impressed at the transformation from sleepy teenage tourists in T-shirts and jeans to this professional-sounding ensemble, who were inspiring in their ability, and touching in their enthusiasm. That the players - aged between 14 and 24 and hailing from 11 countries - should all be there that night seemed entirely natural, but it had been nowhere near as easy as it looked. Orchestra director Richard Pontzious and his small team of assistants and supporters had been negotiating for years to get the 106 performers to the stage on Monday night. It had involved an extraordinary feat of logistics even to arrange work visas and plane tickets to Vietnam for the players, faculty members and entourage, let alone the high musical and political contacts, and the millions of dollars in sponsorship agreements to put together a tour. By two hours before the concert, logistics were threatening to eclipse the proceedings. Pontzious was looking stressed. Everyone, from conductor Sergiu Comissiona to the youngest player, was looking somewhat deflated. There was more than one situation to deal with. But the main problem was that the harp had not arrived from Taiwan. Hanoi's harp stocks appear to be limited to one that was 'beyond imagination' with no strings and a top that kept popping off, so even with strings it could not have kept in tune. A Japanese sponsor - Shoichi Asaji - had generously said he would pay whatever was necessary to get the harp from Taipei to Hanoi. But, despite its celestial connotations, the instrument - which is two metres high, weighs 130 kilos, and is fragile - was not allowed to fly from Kai Tak, where it was in transit, to Hanoi on Cathay. 'As far as we know, the Kai Tak authorities insisted that it should be X-rayed, but their X-ray machine was not big enough, so there it was, it couldn't get here,' Pontzious said later that night. In Mahler's First Symphony, the harp could be seen to have an irreplaceable role in creating the moody, mythical atmosphere that makes the work so haunting. But what is irreplaceable must sometimes be replaced. At 6.30pm, Taiwanese harpist Tai Fan-fen was having a last-minute piano lesson from the impressive double-coaching team of Maestro Comissiona and award-winning American piano soloist Andre-Michel Schub. The harp part would just have to be played on the piano, which was strange, but not musically impossible. Schub looked relieved: 'For a while there I thought I'd have to make my debut on the Mahler, but Fan-fen seems to be doing well on her own.' The Yamaha piano was also not quite what he was used to, he admitted. 'So far we have had great pianos, and I was prepared for there to be at least one on the tour that wasn't that wonderful,' he said, reasonably cheerfully. Had he given concerts on worse? 'Yes,' Schub admitted. 'But not too many: I once gave a concert in Montevideo where five keys in the middle of the keyboard were missing. 'At one point I thought I just couldn't go on, but then I looked at the audience, and realised that this was all they had ever heard.' Just half an hour before the concert started, it looked as if there would be no picture-feed to the outside screen. Pontzious was having to negotiate with the television crew who were refusing to link the screen with their feed, even though this had been agreed six months ago. It was only when they were given the ultimatum that either the link was made, or the film-making was off altogether, and the Minister of Culture's arrival was said to be imminent, that requests for unexpected financial subsidies were dropped. There had also been an emotional argument about lights at the end of the concert. The television crew wanted to turn their heavy duty lamps on to the audience; Pontzious stood firm. 'There will be no lights,' he kept repeating. 'I know from our experience in China a couple of years ago that TV crews like to show the important people in the audience, so they turn the spotlight on the VIPs. But it gives a wrong idea of the concert,' he explained afterwards. 'It comes down to playing chicken; who's going to give in first. It was panicville but the bottom line is that this is our concert, and we have all the cards. 'A little money can grease the wheels,' he admitted. 'But my position is that we don't pay graft. The most people get from us is a free CD.' Vietnam Radio had earlier walked into the concert hall and begun setting up their equipment. 'What are you doing?' Pontzious had asked them through an interpreter. They explained they were going to record the concert: he in turn explained that these things need to be agreed in advance, or at least to be agreed. And despite everything, it was a musically and culturally exciting night, with the highlight being Mahler's First Symphony - with piano. 'How dare they do the Mahler: they are so young and it needs so much maturity,' said one man at the finish, talking to his friends and shaking his head. 'And how dare they do it so well.' Clarinettist Nguyen Tuan Loc, 23, was playing in his hometown. 'I feel very happy and proud, of course,' he said, speaking through his new friend Nguyen Quoc Truong from Ho Chi Minh City. 'It's the first time that a foreign orchestra has played [in Hanoi], and it is a good feeling to be part of that.' Loc is a graduating student of the Hanoi Conservatory, and despite a scarcity of money, instruments and music, he has managed to be worthy of an orchestra of international standard, and is determined to continue his musical career. 'It will be my job forever,' he said. Truong, second violinist and an AYO veteran after he was part of last year's tour of the United States, also said the Hanoi concert was a highlight. 'I was glad that the audience liked it so much.' 'It is very Russian-style to clap like that,' he observed of the loud, rhythmic applause that went on for so long the performers did not know what to do. 'But that's not so surprising, because most of the music teachers in Vietnam studied in the Soviet Union, so they have transported all the traditions.' The importance of the concert was vividly communicated to the group that morning when they visited the 70-year-old Hanoi Conservatory in the northern suburbs, hidden down an overgrown lane. The building is old and the conservatory so under-resourced that the teachers do not even begin to worry about the lack of air-conditioning - but the lack of violin strings is a concern. During the Vietnam war the conservatory continued teaching, although it moved to underground caves in a small village outside the city. Many of the current teachers were students then. For the AYO visit to the school the students had put up banners, a good show of hospitality and an exciting performance of traditional music that had the visiting musicians on their feet, whistling and applauding thunderously. Later, the students and the music faculty jumped on stage and tried out the bamboo instruments that are played by clapping in front of the openings, or the single-string instrument that looked and sounded like something from a different planet. Suddenly, regardless of their country of origin, how much money they had grown up with or what language they spoke, they were all musicians together, communicating in the same language. It was a moving moment, and, as Comissiona said, 'it is what the Asian Youth Orchestra is all about'. This was the penultimate city in a 13-concert, 10-city, eight-country, three-week tour that ends this afternoon in Manila (also a first for the orchestra). The audiences ranged from very warm to wildly enthusiastic. In Singapore, Pontzious proudly recounted, President Ong Teng Cheong said that although the Mahler had been performed at least three times by the resident symphony orchestra, 'this is the first time we have really heard it'. And everywhere people have commented that this is, without doubt, one of Asia's best orchestras. 'When you hear things like that, or see a concert like this one in Hanoi actually coming to life, then it's all worthwhile,' said an exhausted Pontzious, as he prepared to spend a day in three airports before arriving in the Philippines for another logistical miracle.