Celebrate Asia! to feature prodigy violinist Hahn-Bin and pipa player Jie Ma

By Vivian Miezianko
Northwest Asian Weekly

Now that the Lunar New Year festivities are over, where can one find a jubilant event that the entire family can participate in? Where can one relish Western classical music performed alongside contemporary Asian compositions by world-class musicians, book-ended by an exhilarating showcase of traditional dance, drumming, and music?

On Feb. 24, Celebrate Asia!, a committee that brings Asian classical musicians to perform at Benaroya Hall, will hold its fourth annual concert.

During the event, the Seattle Symphony will present the world premiere of Chinese American composer Kay He’s “Legends of Old Peking,” the winning entry of the 2011 Celebrate Asia! composition competition.

Celebrate Asia! performer Cuong Vu

Also featured in the program is the distinguished Chinese pipa player Jie Ma, who will be the soloist in Pulitzer Prize-winning composer Zhou Long’s “Beijing Drum.” Tchaikovsky’s well-known violin concerto will be performed by the young, idiosyncratic virtuoso Hahn-Bin. The Cuong Vu Group, led by Vietnamese American composer and University of Washington Associate Professor of Jazz Studies Cuong Vu, will perform Vu’s work “ONE.”

Celebrate Asia! conductor Mei Ann Chen

Mei-Ann Chen, music director of the Memphis Symphony Orchestra, will be at the podium. The symphony will also present Gershwin’s “Girl Crazy Overture.”

In addition to the exciting lineup above, the audience will enjoy pre-concert performances by the Okinawa Kenjin-Kai Taiko, Seattle Indian Music Academy, Seattle-Surabaya Sister City Association, and International Lion Dance Martial Arts Team. Lastly, One World Taiko will present the post-concert performance.

What is new about this year’s concert?

“We have [had] a composition competition for two years. This year, Kay He’s ‘Legends of Old Peking’ was the winning entry…. She’s a young Chinese American composer,” said Amy Bokanev, the Seattle Symphony assistant artistic administrator, who manages Celebrate Asia!. “We also have a modern piece by Cuong Vu. … The Seattle Symphony premiered it last year, so this is the chance to hear it again. And we have the pipa player Jie Ma performing the Chinese composer Zhou Long’s ‘Beijing Drum.’ It is a lovely instrument.”

Celebrate Asia! performer Hahn-Bin

“And Hahn-Bin — he’s so incredible,” she added. “He’s the prodigy of Itzhak Perlman … He’s really genre-defying. … I really think it will not be your average listening experience.”

Korean American Hahn-Bin (his name is often stylized as HAHN-BIN) made his international debut at age 12 at the 2000 Grammy Awards and has performed at Carnegie Hall to great acclaim. A February Huffington Post article describes him as “devour[ing] influences from Ginsberg to Bjork to Mozart to Ryan Trecartin and channel[ing] them with a graceful beauty.” Asked if there will be any visual elements in Hahn-Bin’s rendition of Tchaikovsky’s concerto, Bokanev replied, “I know that he plans to change his costumes and he will be moving around on the stage. … It will be a visual presentation as well as an aural one.”

Bokanev continued, “One of the most exciting parts of the program is the pre-concert performances because they are presented by the local communities.”

Jie Ma

Celebrate Asia! performer Jie Ma

One of the musicians on stage that evening will be the Los Angeles-based pipa player Jie Ma, whom the Guardian referred to as one of the “notable” players of the instrument.

Ma was born in Lanzhou, China, hailing from a family of traditional Chinese musicians. She began studying music and the pipa, a four-stringed Chinese instrument with more than 2,000 years of history, at age 5, being drawn to the music she heard at home. “My mother is a pipa professional musician. I grew up listening to other Chinese music, too. … I loved the music, and my parents pushed me a little,” recounted Ma on the outset of her journey with the pipa.

Ma began playing professionally at age 14. She received her bachelor’s degree from Tianjin Conservatory of Music, also having studied under pipa and ruan (another Chinese plucked string instrument) masters in China. She later became an adjunct professor in music at Liao Ning Normal University and has taught pipa in the United States.

Growing up with traditional Chinese music, she was first exposed to Western style music, such as jazz and blues, in her conservatory days. “I had schoolmates that play[ed] jazz and blues. I heard them play and I went to concerts, but I didn’t collaborate with them,” said Ma. Only after she moved to the United States in 2004 did Ma begin to explore the possibilities of combining traditional pipa technique with Western music and to collaborate with musicians of different genres, including jazz, blues, and country. She has performed in China, Japan, and throughout the United States.

Upon her move to San Francisco, Ma’s first residence in the United States, she was struck with nostalgia. “It was a complicated feeling. [On the one hand], I missed home a lot — I am so tied to my culture — I still am.

Also the customs, the whole society [were] new for me. [On the other hand], I was excited. The community is what I missed the most. Then I made friends, made music, so I got less homesick,” recalled Ma. She goes back to China at least once a year.

When asked about the major difference between performing with a jazz or other non-traditional ensemble and playing traditional Chinese pipa works, Ma said, “I heard people say jazz is more free … and traditional music has lots of restrictions. I really feel [that] a lot of things [between jazz and traditional Chinese music] are similar. They all have rules, like what chord you should change. … Chinese music has rules. … But there are different interpretations of the rules. So you also have freedom. [In this respect], it is similar to jazz improvisation. Of course, the music is different. Chinese music is not played by chord changing, but mainly by the melody. So the chord changes, color, tones are different. When I play jazz with other musicians, I learn a lot. After that, I go back to play Chinese music; [the experience] enriches my music.”

Pastime and dream

When asked what her dream is, Ma replied, “I want to be a messenger — to introduce my instrument to the world, to get more and more people to know and understand traditional Chinese music.” She hopes Chinese instruments will be more widely accepted in various performing venues. Pausing for a second, she then laughed and continued, “I am actually living my dream now, so I am very happy.” (end)

Celebrate Asia!’s concert will be held at Benaroya Hall on Feb. 24. Pre-concert activities begin at 6:30 p.m. For more information, visit www.celebrateasia.org.

Vivian Miezianko can be reached at info@nwasianweekly.com.

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