2019 Chinese New Year Concert

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

A new procession opens this season's Chinese New Year Concert. This vignette (set to David Byrne's music from The Last Emperor) celebrates the eternal hope and dreams wished upon the forthcoming Lunar New Year. Through the 2000-year-old traditions of the Chinese Lantern Festival our desire for a joyous and harmonious planet seeks to be heard by the universal spirits who apportion our lives. The tradition binds us to cleanse, unify, come together as family, and start fresh as we follow the sunrises and sunsets that move our ever-vulnerable hearts.

Lunar New Year celebrates new beginnings and the coming of the spring season, and we start our concert proper 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.

The Butterfly Lovers Concerto was the brainchild of two gifted students at the Shanghai Conservatory during the late 1950s. Violinist He Zhanhao studied Western art music but quickly became interested in the idea of uniting Western techniques with the sounds of traditional Chinese music. At the time, Western classical music was not the norm in China: “What they wanted to hear, we didn’t know how to play,” the now eighty-five-year-old He noted in a recent interview. “And what we played, they didn’t understand.” He began experimenting with adapting Chinese tunes for the violin in addition to composing his own short violin pieces. A breakthrough came when the violinist was paired with composer Chen Gang to create a work in this new style. The duo gravitated toward the tale of the Butterfly Lovers, a Chinese folk legend in the Romeo and Juliet mold. The result was a violin concerto like none other, and which balanced Western harmony with the sounds and melodies of Chinese traditional opera (He played Chinese opera in his youth). The Butterfly Lovers Concerto was a smashing success in its premiere and soon gained a foothold in the repertory. All that was brought to a halt with the dawn of the Cultural Revolution in the late 1960s. Much like Shostakovich’s music in the mercurial climate of Stalin’s Russia, The Butterfly Lovers Concerto was dismissed as bourgeois and the work fell silent. But the concerto proved to be more resilient than any repressive revolution: The Shanghai Conservatory reopened in the late 1970s and a new generation of violinists emerged to take on the mantle of The Butterfly Lovers. The concerto has steadily regained its stature as a classic, performed and recorded by leading violinists including Gil Shaham. (Shaham’s lovely Canary Classics CD is accompanied by a substantial essay by Ken Smith, essential reading for those wishing to learn more about the piece.)

Violinist Angelo Xiang Yu has provided the following comments on The Butterfly Lovers:

I received my early music education in Shanghai, where The Butterfly Lovers Concerto was composed and premiered. I grew up listening to it, and it was one of the reasons why I chose violin as my instrument—because of its ability to sing, vibrate, and slide like a human voice without the boundary of languages. Even when I was a little child, the touching story of Liang Shanbo and Zhu Yingtai (the “Lovers”) had such tremendous influence on me. I was deeply moved by the power of love; even death was not able to stop them. To perform this piece is always an emotional challenge, as it is very difficult not to be moved by the beautiful yet heartbreaking melodies. In China, if you ask someone who has almost no music education or any classical music experience, he/she would still recognize the opening tune of The Butterfly Lovers Concerto. That’s how much this piece means to us, and it keeps reminding me of who I am and where I come from.

The concerto is divided into three sections, played continuously. Part I describes Zhu and Liang’s meeting (Liang is represented on cello, and Zhu on violin), their joining hands, the blossoming of love; their study and play and their sad separation when Zhu returns home. Part II portrays their resistance to Zhu’s arranged marriage, their meeting at the tower, Liang’s death, and Zhu’s suicide. Part III wraps up the saga as the flute and harps suggest the mystery of the metamorphosis. Finally, the play of the butterflies is heard after a recapitulation of the love theme.

Jasmine Flower (or “Jasmine Blossom”) is a popular Chinese love song whose lyrics extol the bloom’s beauty and fragrance, expressing a wish to make a gift of it to a beloved. The song (Mo Li Hua) dates back to the Qing Dynasty, and different versions vary slightly in lyrics and melody. Chinese composer Tan Dun (who won an Oscar for his score for the 2000 film Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon) adapted Jasmine Flower for use during the medal ceremonies at the 2008 Olympic Games in Beijing. “Mo Li Hua is such an iconic piece it is almost a cultural symbol of China,” he said, also describing the main melody as “glorious, heartwarming, and full of respect.”

The Chinese traditional instrumental ensemble Red Chamber performs two contrasting folk songs. The Moon Over Spring River is a meditative nocturne while Dance of the Yao People offers a graceful lyrical dance that soon gives way to an energetic, improvisatory section.

An-Lun Huang (b. 1949), studied at the Central Conservatory of Music in Beijing. The Cultural Revolution derailed him from his formal studies, and he left China for Canada in 1980, studied composition at the University of Toronto, then at Trinity College in England, then at Yale. Today, he lives in Canada. Huang has represented Canada’s Department of Foreign Affairs as an ambassador for Canadian music to China. He immersed himself in Asian and Western traditions, composing music colored by these dual influences. The Saibei Dance performed this afternoon is a jazzy closer with a popular feel. (The fluttering opening flute solo brings to mind John Adams’s Short Ride in a Fast Machine.) Halfway through, the music relaxes for a lyrical horn solo, but the energy soon increases, and the conclusion is rousing.