Program Notes

Welcome to this concert celebrating the Lunar New Year. We’re delighted that you are joining us this afternoon to commemorate the beginning of the Year of the Dog. We wish you health, happiness, and prosperity for the coming year.

Our program opens with the traditional Dragon Dance. In this festive dance, dancers mimic the movements of the dragon, demonstrating the power and dignity of this river spirit. In Chinese culture, dragons are believed to bring good luck to people, and symbolize wisdom and auspiciousness.

Lunar New Year celebrates new beginnings and the coming of the spring season, and we start our concert with the Overture from the Spring Festival Suite by Huan-zhi Li (1919-2000). This rousing music is inspired by Chinese folk song, but it also incorporates a distinctively Western flavor.

Most of the late works of Sergei Rachmaninoff (1873-1943) found few friends when they were new. To this the Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini was a happy exception. Audiences everywhere took to it, and it entered the repertory quickly. Among connois­seurs and professionals it is probably the most admired of Rachmaninoff’s works. It embodies his late style at its best, it has one of the world’s irresistible melodies, and it gives the audience the satisfaction of watching a pianist work very hard, with obviously rewarding results.

For his theme, Rachmaninoff turned to Niccolò Paganini, the legendary violinist (and composer) who in his time (1782‑1840) had a following as im­passioned and single-minded as a rock star’s. Rachmaninoff found the music on which he bases his Rhapsody in Paganini’s Caprice No. 24. He takes the second half of Paganini’s first measure as his launching pad, using it over eight meas­ures to build suspense. This is followed by the first variation on a theme not yet heard. It is a skeleton, but as the variation nears its close, it begins to assume flesh. The theme proper, when it appears, is assigned to the violins, while the pianist accompanies with the skeleton.

Taking the Rhapsody by chapters, this is what we hear: The first five variations are increasingly excited, the sixth more relaxed. Variation 7 introduces the Dies irae from the Gregorian Mass for the Dead, which Rachmaninoff was especially fond of using in his music. Though always a secondary idea in the scheme of the piece, the Dies irae remains a presence from here on. Through Variation 10, Rachman­inoff explores everything sinister about it.

Using Variation 11 as a loose transition, Rachmaninoff begins a new phase in Variation 12, which is in a demure minuet tempo. The basic allegro is soon resumed, but the chapter is rounded off with another Variation (No. 16) in a gentler tempo and scored almost as chamber music. Variation 17 is another transition, strange and dark. The travail of this mysterious exploration is rewarded when the music emerges into the soft moonlight and inspired melody of Variation 18, which Rachmaninoff found by inverting Paganini’s theme. The orchestra wakes the dreamer, and the piano responds with a bravura vari­ation, with dazzling left‑hand pizzicatos. Variation 19 begins the final chap­ter, saturated in Paganiniana and spooky Dies irae atmosphere. At the summit of a climax, and one with some touches of Broadway, the pianist launches into a brief and thundering cadenza. The two final variations work up tremendous excitement, and the coda, all two measures of it, is a stroke of delicious wit. 

Tan Dun (b. 1957) grew up during the Cultural Revolution in China. In the mid-1970s, he was sent to live among the peasants of the Huangjin commune, and there he worked for two years, planting rice. Tan began to collect folk songs and music from his peasant neighbors, and at seventeen he led musical celebrations and rituals, from weddings to funerals. In 1978, he entered the Central Conservatory in Beijing. Though the Chinese government criticized Tan Dun for his inclination toward Western tastes and lack of ideological fervor, he continued to attract listeners. In 1986 he was offered a fellowship at Columbia University in New York City. There, he was introduced to a vast spectrum of music. In 1998, he became the youngest winner of the Grawemeyer Award, the world’s most prestigious prize for composers, for his opera Marco Polo. Tan served as music director of the Tanglewood Contemporary Music Festival in 1999 and artistic director of the London Barbican Centre’s international festival in 2000. In 2001, his music for Ang Lee’s Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon received an Academy Award for best film score as well as a Grammy for Best Score Soundtrack for Visual Media.

Tan Dun’s The Triple Resurrection (2013) is an outgrowth of one of his most popular works, the so-called Martial Arts Trilogy. The cycle is a set of three concertos, one each for violin, cello, and piano, derived from music he composed for the soundtracks of three beloved martial arts films. According to Tan Dun:

The Trilogy was born out of the three greatest romantic martial arts films of our time, which were directed by three of its most influential directors: Ang Lee (Crouching Tiger), Zhang Yimou (Hero), and Feng Xiaogang (The Banquet). For me, the Martial Arts Trilogy was a preconceived project that. . . developed into a spiritual drama through three of our most important musicians: Yo-Yo Ma, Itzhak Perlman, and Lang Lang. The Trilogy features three different films as one opera or like a ballet in three acts. It centers on the love and sacrifice of three women for three very different reasons.

The Triple Resurrection brings together the three featured instruments for a triple concerto. Continuing the Trilogy’s carefully plotted arc, The Triple Resurrection recalls motifs from the previous three concertos. Not surprisingly, Tan Dun had Wagner on the brain when writing The Triple Resurrection. The composer notes:

I wrote this piece for Wagner’s 200th birthday, because his idea of orchestral drama affected me so much. My triple concerto, which I named The Triple Resurrection, is a salute to Wagner’s very powerful Ring cycle. The Triple Resurrection has multiple layers of ideas concerning resurrection, reflected in the belief, the music, the drama, the opera, the cinema. Basically, orchestral drama has here been adapted into a form for the twenty-first century. Even with music written for film, the music on its own can tell the story and can convey fantastic drama.

Huang Ruo, born in 1976, began studies at the Shanghai Conservatory when he was twelve. He continued his education in this country at the Oberlin Conservatory and the Juilliard School. He is a founding member of the International Contemporary Ensemble and founder of the performance company Future in Reverse. Commissioned by the San Francisco Symphony, Huang’s Folk Songs for Orchestra received their first performance in the SFS 2012 Chinese New Year concert. The composer offers these reflections on the music:

Folk songs reflect the life and culture of a civilization. I grew up in China and have always had a fond love for Chinese folk songs. China has more than fifty ethnic groups, each with its own culture, traditions, and folk songs. The goal [in Folk Songs for Orchestra] is not only to preserve and renew the original folk songs, but also to transform them into new pieces of art that also contain organic originality. 

For this work, I have chosen three of the most well-known Chinese folk songs.

The first one is the “Flower Drum Song from Feng Yang.” Almost one hundred different songs are performed in Fengyang Flower Drum, which boasts a long history. Known for its flower-drum performances, Fengyang is the birthplace of Zhu Yuanzhang, the first emperor of the Ming Dynasty. At performances that include singing and dancing in Fengyang county of Anhui province, Fengyang Flower Drum has been passed down over the centuries. Fengyang Flower Drum can be divided into three parts, Flower Drum Lantern, Flower Drum Play, and Flower Drum Gong. Together, these are entitled Fengyang Flower Drum, or Three Flowers of Fengyang.

The second piece is called “Love Song from Kang Ding.” This tune is one of the most popular Chinese folk songs. Its simple melody and vivid rhythm are easy to remember and sing, and its lyrics tell of a timeless theme—love. This song is from the Sichuan province. 

The third piece is called “The Girls from Daban City.” It is also known as “Carriage Driver’s Song.” It is from the Xinjiang province and is sung by carriage drivers in Turpan. The lively music shows the enthusiastic and colorful characteristics of Uyghur folk song, reflecting its people’s heartfelt admiration for Xinjiang, the “hometown of songs and dances.”

Gong Xi Gong Xi is a traditional song, expressing best wishes for the New Year.

(February 2018)