BLOG: Celebrate Asia!’s success formula

I was completely lost during the first half of Celebrate Asia! at Benaroya Hall last Friday. I was the problem. Pipa, a traditional Chinese instrument similar to a guitar (except it’s played vertically), is too profound for me.

I was not alone, though. Some non-Chinese audience members said they also had a hard time wrapping their minds around the pipa, played by Los Angeles’ Jie Ma, one of the best pipa performers there is. Others didn’t appreciate the jazz performance led by University of Washington professor Cuong Vu. Jazz and symphony music don’t mix with one another, a friend told me. These artists were top-notch and dynamic. Unfortunately, intense, shocking, and aggressive music was not pleasing to me after a long work week. It was Friday night. I was expecting something soothing and relaxing to help me unwind.

What made me stay, though, was seeing talented Asian artists with a commanding presence, being featured as solo musicians accompanied by a big orchestra, the Seattle Symphony Orchestra. With pride, I sat down, sharing the successful moment with the Asian community, in a sellout concert of more than 2,000. It was exhilarating to watch fellow Asian Americans being stars, especially Vu, who was the first Vietnamese American on the main Celebrate Asia! stage.

Hahn-Bin, a character or musician?

Seattle Symphony Orchestra’s public relations manager Jill Becker (left) with Hahn -Bin and a fan (Photo by George Liu/NWAW)

From the past three Celebrate Asia! concerts, I’ve learned that the best is often saved for the last. Indeed, it was.

Hahn-Bin, a Korean American, gave a stunning and inspiring show. I am a fan of classical music, especially Tchaikovsky’s “Violin Concerto in D Major.”

Hahn-Bin made a dramatic entry with his colorful, flashy costume and hairstyle. A blend of reality and fantasy, Hahn-Bin is not your usual Asian musician. He is not only a brilliant violinist but also an actor, expressing emotions by wandering around the orchestra and sitting on the floor with props, such as a flight of stairs and a chair. The audience rewarded Hahn-Bin with two standing ovations.

Born in South Korea, Hahn-Bin moved to the United States at age 10, becoming a citizen.

Hahn-bin said after the show, “The audience is my inspiration. You’re responsible for my performance.”

He said he studied both East and West cultures and music and is “proud of both.”

The success formula for Celebrate Asia! is a mixture of music: modern and classical, Asian and Western, all blended together to create a variety to appeal to a diverse audience. This year, there was an increase in mainstream audience members.

Conductor Mei-An Chen

Conductor Mei-Ann Chen (Photo by George Liu/NWAW)

When news broke that the SSO was not going to renew its associate conductor Carolyn Kuan’s contract, fans were not happy. Kuan had conducted Celebrate Asia! during the past three years.

SSO hired Memphis Symphony Orchestra conductor Mei-An Chen instead. Both Kuan and Chen are competent and passionate conductors who happen to be young Chinese females from Taiwan who broke barriers and earned awards previously given only to men. Despite similarities, they do have different styles.

Chen did not disappoint the audience. I supposed it is not easy for Chen to work with musicians like Hahn-Bin, who is unpredictable and likes to improvise.

From a creativity standpoint, it’s always stimulating to have SSO work with new people, to try new ideas to achieve innovation. From a management standpoint, it’s important to allow flexibility and opportunity to develop artists other than your own.

Change is crucial to many organizations, especially the arts community in a challenging economy. I guess SSO will have to make it clear to its supporters the rationale for doing so. (end)

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