Enter the Year of the Dragon

Classic Arts Features   Enter the Year of the Dragon
This month the New York Philharmonic joins the ChineseAmerican community in celebrating the Chinese NewYear. Ken Smith reveals the history and hopes behindthis first-ever Philharmonic celebration.


The last time New York Philharmonic Principal Oboe Liang Wang performed Chen Qigang's Extase was in 2009 on tour with the newly revived symphony orchestra from Qingdao, the city where he was born. "It's also where the beer [Tsingtao] is from. It's kind of like a beer festival orchestra," he jokes. Levity aside, Wang's performance of the piece this month : with his current hometown orchestra, as part of the New York Philharmonic's Chinese New Year Gala Concert on January 24 : stands as a serious mark of how far international relations have come once again.

China and the West always seem to be rediscovering one another : a strange situation, considering that New Yorkers were drinking tea in porcelain cups even before there was even a United States. That cycle of discovery has gone full circle a couple of times over the past century, with echoes of those interactions resonating culturally throughout the city during the past year, from an Englishspeaking, operatic Chairman Mao on Lincoln Center Plaza to a Mandarin-speaking cast on Broadway in David Henry Hwang's Chinglish. The current wave of cultural interactions traces its roots to the symphony orchestra : specifically, the American orchestral tours that helped China toward the end of the Cultural Revolution (1966 _76).

"It was the first time the Chinese saw a group of Americans," recalls Angela Chen, one of the Co-Chairs of this Gala. "Those concerts in China over the decades have been a kind of peacemaker between the West and the East." In fact, the New York Philharmonic's concert, which inaugurates a Chinese holiday initiative with guest conductor Long Yu, charts some key points not just in the way the West had helped shape China, but also in how China has more recently begun returning the favor. Lang Lang, the first Chinese-born musician to become a worldwide popular sensation, plays the First Piano Concerto of Franz Lizst, who rather defined the role of the superstar virtuoso in his own day. By contrast, bamboo flutist Tang Jun Qiao (who first reached Western ears in Tan Dun's Oscar-winning score to Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon) turns to the folk-filled Raise the Red Lantern by composer and flutist Zhou Chenglong (b. 1946), who drove the bamboo flute to new heights of popularity in this century both in his music and in his playing.

Consider, too, the difference between Bao Yuankai's China Air Suite with Chen's Extase. Bao's suite (as the composer has explained) uses melodies familiar to Chinese listeners to introduce them to Western forms, and also uses forms familiar to Western listeners to introduce them to Chinese melodies. By contrast, Chen's piece for oboe and orchestra mimics the rustic playing techniques of the Chinese suona while drawing a degree of symphonic depth from Western orchestral sonorities. The program also includes a range of choral folk music from Inner Mongolia, representing one of China's 55 acknowledged minority populations : a distinct break from the image of the country as a single monolithic culture and an acknowledgement that, like Walt Whitman's description of America, China is large and contains multitudes.

This web of connections between China and the West is not only illustrated in Chen's music but also in his life. The first composer to leave China after the Cultural Revolution, Chen settled in France to become the final student of Olivier Messiaen. After two decades in Europe, his career took an abrupt turn eastward when he was tapped to become music director of the 2008 Beijing Olympics. Now, like many Chinese-born artists of our time, both his schedule and sensibilities are divided between two countries and two cultures.

"What this concert and gala are celebrating is Chinese culture, of course, but it is also celebrating the Chinese American community," says Shirley Young, another Gala Co- Chair who was a key instigator of the Wall project, "Chinese in America : We Are Family," a video exhibition that played at the American Pavilion during the 2010 World Expo in Shanghai and which she is arranging to present on Lincoln Center's Josie Robertson Plaza on the day of the concert. Ms. Young and Ms. Chen join Anla Cheng, Lady Linda Wong Davies, The Honorable Frank N. Newman and Mrs. Newman, Philharmonic Chairman Gary W. Parr, Mr. and Mrs. Oscar L. Tang, and Ansso Wang as Co-Chairs; the list of Honorary Gala Chairs reflects this aspect of cultural diplomacy as well, as it comprises Mr. and Mrs. Maurice R. Greenberg, The Honorable Henry A. Kissinger and Mrs. Kissinger, and H.E. Ambassador LI Baodong and Madam LU Hailin.

Looking over the passage of time and geography, Angela Chen reflects: "Thirty years later China is a very different place, but still the Chinese people want to understand Western culture even more." Much the same can be said about Westerners and their understanding of China, as Chinese communities embrace their roots with increasing fervor, and Eastern cultures acquire increasing visibility in the cultural mainstream.

Still, this concert does not just span continents: it celebrates the fusion that already exists. "This will be the first time that the New York Philharmonic will have mounted such a high-profile celebration of the Chinese American community," notes Shirley Young, adding, "It is obviously an important part of both our city and our nation."


Ken Smith writes about music and culture for the Financial Times, Gramophone, and other publications. He divides his time between New York and Hong Kong.

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