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Condoleezza Rice wins rave reviews with gala performance

Kuala Lumpur - US top diplomat Condoleezza Rice won rave reviews Thursday for her musical performance at Asian security talks, despite skipping the traditional rowdy skits in favour of a sombre piano recital.

With North Korea firing off missiles, carnage in Lebanon, rockets raining on Israel and killings convulsing Iraq, Rice was in no mood for the kind of frivolity staged in previous years.

In keeping with her "serious" mood the Secretary of State performed two pieces from the brooding repertoire of Johannes Brahms -- a solo Intermezzo number two, and Brahms Sonata for violin and piano, opus 108, with a Malaysian guest soloist.

She arrived at the Istana hotel in downtown Kuala Lumpur for the annual gala dinner wearing a glamorous red dress and red jacket made of traditional Malaysian batik material.

The dress was designed by Faisol Abdullah, a friend of the Malaysian Prime Minister Abdullah Ahmad Badawi, and was custom-made for Rice.

Regional ministers swooned over the performance as they left the dinner.

"Oh, beautiful, beautiful. She's a great pianist. She's a concert pianist," said Philippines Foreign Secretary Alberto Romulo, who insisted that despite the geopolitical realities a good time was had by all.

"I don't think it was a sombre mood. We were in a happy mood, we had a lot of fun," he told AFP.

Other acts ranged from the bizarre to the hilarious. The Australians usually bring the house down but were curiously absent this year, leaving it to the Russians to deliver a self-deprecating skit that drew gales of laughter.

The Japanese meanwhile put on a sci-fi act that styled Foreign Minister Taro Aso as a Bogart-style time-traveller who saves the world from disaster and heralds a new era of regional cooperation.

Ong Keng Yong, secretary-general of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (Asean) which is hosting this week's Asean Regional Forum, applauded Rice's efforts which came after a marathon week of diplomacy.

"The mood was very good," he said. "It was a good, symbolic performance by her. I thought that she has made an extraordinary effort to be here," he said, referring to her dash from Rome where she attended Middle East crisis talks.

Rice's decision to take the stage alone was a relief to some of her entourage. Karen Hughes, former spin doctor for President George W. Bush, now czar of US public diplomacy, admitted she had been let off the hook.

"I can't even hum," she confessed on the eve of the Asean Regional Forum (ARF) gala.

Last year, Rice rumpled Asean feathers by skipping the foreign ministers' meeting and sending her then deputy Robert Zoellick.

Previous US secretaries of state, however, have caused a splash at Asean.

Two years ago Colin Powell, initially wary of lampooning himself at his first ARF in 2001, had them rolling in the aisles with a version of the Village People hit "Y.M.C.A."

Bill Clinton's secretary of state Madeleine Albright relished the occasion -- once donning a bowler hat and tuxedo for her star turn.

"When you're not so sweet, I call the Seventh Fleet, That's the American Way," she crooned, jabbing at her Chinese counterpart one year, to the tune of Bob Hope's "Thanks for the Memories."

In addition to Asean members Brunei, Cambodia, Indonesia, Laos, Malaysia, Myanmar, the Philippines, Singapore, Thailand and Vietnam, the ARF groups Australia, Bangladesh, Canada, China, East Timor, the European Union, India, Japan, Mongolia, New Zealand, North Korea, Papua New Guinea, Pakistan, Russia, South Korea, and the United States.

Agence France Presse
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