The Pacific Symphony Lunar New Year Dinner was held in the Jewel Court at South Coast Plaza and Concert was performed at the Renee and Henry Segerstrom Concert Hall in Costa Mesa, California on January 28, 2023. Photo Credit: Doug Gifford
Pacific Symphony’s Lunar New Year concert on January 28th was a festive evening dedicated to a holiday celebrated all around the world. Held at the stunning Renee and Henry Segerstrom Concert Hall in Costa Mesa, the concert brought together traditional performances alongside classical favorites for a cosmopolitan Lunar New Year experience. Unlike a typical classical concert where the orchestra performs three to four lengthy pieces, the Lunar New Year concert, conducted by Carl St. Clair, packed 12 shorter pieces into an approximately two-and-a-half-hour show, appealing to concert-goers of all ages and classical music familiarity with its novelty and accessibility.
While the eye-catching festivities of Chinese New Year like firecrackers and lion dance are most often associated with Lunar New Year, the holiday and the lunar calendar are recognized by almost a third of the world’s population, including many who live in Vietnam, South Korea, Indonesia, and the Philippines. The program acknowledged the diversity of cultures that celebrate the holiday by including pieces by Chinese, Vietnamese, and Korean composers. Some of the more traditional pieces included “Defeating the Tiger on the Mountain,” originally a revolutionary Chinese opera, which was orchestrated and arranged to feature the guzheng and the bamboo flute, and the “Overture” to Huanzhi Li’s Spring Festival Suite. In the “Overture,” the orchestra was joined by dancers of all ages. They were dressed in brightly colored “hanfu” (Chinese folk clothing) and portrayed the jubilance of ushering in the new year with their graceful yet agile dance formations and joyous expressions. The dancers returned onstage later in the program for Shunxiang Zhang’s “Peking Opera” composition, performed by the composer himself on the jinghu, a Chinese bowed instrument, along with his family members Jack Zhang (jinghu) and Bo Guan (voice). The piece told a story about a court lady beautifying herself and featured elaborate costumes and makeup, as well as the piercing vocal tone characteristic of this traditional Chinese art form.
Switching gears from China to Korea, Yeong-Seob Choe’s “Longing for Mt. GeumGang,” featuring soprano Nayoung Ban, paid homage to an enormous and varied geographic formation that has inspired generations of artists. While the mountain range is now in North Korean territory and no longer accessible to South Koreans, it is deeply enmeshed in the South Korean cultural consciousness as a symbol of home and nostalgia.
The program featured several pieces by East Asian composers, yet it also illuminated the influence of classical Western music in the East Asian and Asian American sonic landscape. Western classical music’s presence in East Asia has been growing quickly since the 1920s and is now very much mainstream. On the flip side, Asian and Asian American performers and composers are making significant inroads into the classical music scene. Xiang Hou’s “New Year’s Greeting,” arranged by Phoon Yew Tien, a Singaporean composer trained in both Chinese and Western orchestral music, takes the well-known theme from “Jingle Bells” and reimagines it into a romantic, almost Disney-esque orchestral piece adorned with Chinese musical sensibilities. “Sayuri’s Theme” from John Williams’ soundtrack to Memoirs of a Geisha also reflects the dual Eastern and Western influences in the cinematic orchestration, emotive theme, and a stunning traditional Japanese dance performance by Cheryl Ku. While Japan’s rapid modernization moved the country away from the lunar calendar, this performance honored Japan’s rich cultural legacy. Ku, performing on a round podium, embodied the main character from the movie and captivated the audience with her graceful movements.
On the other end of the musical spectrum, classical staples were also represented in the program. 16-year old Singaporean virtuoso Chloe Chua, the joint winner of the 2018 Yehudi Menuhin International Competition for Young Violinists, showcased her impeccable technique and refined musicality in Sarasate’s famed showpiece, “Carmen Fantasy.” The piece is extremely technically demanding, requiring mastery of artificial harmonics, left hand pizzicato, flying spiccato, double stops, and sometimes even multiple of these techniques at once, but Chua performed with a sense of whimsy and lightness that belied the difficulty of the piece.
The evening closed with the beloved “Ode to Joy,” the fourth movement of Beethoven’s Symphony No. 9, and “America the Beautiful,” presumably to evoke the seeming universality of Beethoven’s declaration of jubilee. However, the Western-centrism of these selections felt somewhat out of place in a Lunar New Year celebration, even a bit ironic in the wake of the recent tragedies in Monterey Park and Half Moon Bay. This observation is not to fault the organizers, but rather to draw out the unmistakable influences of Western art music on East Asian composers and instrumentalists. Nevertheless, the evening spotlighted incredible artistry from composers and performers from various cultures and generations for a cosmopolitan Lunar New Year event.