BLOG: The good and unexpected of Celebrate Asia

By Assunta Ng

Pre-concert display of native costumes

Celebrate Asia, which was designed to highlight the merits of Asian cultures as part of the Seattle Symphony program, got mixed reviews last Friday.

Sponsors Ming Zhang of MulvannyG2 and Eric Booker of Snoqualmie Casino with Haochen Zhang and Supersonic Fred Brown

Even with much effort and investment in its sixth year at Benaroya Hall, the audience gave a thumbs-down to the first part of the program — especially “Nam Mai,” a composition performed by Vietnamese and Swedish musicians synchronized with film images of a dance on a big screen. But they gave high marks to the second part, which featured a promising young composer named Shuying Li, who wrote an interesting and dynamic opera overture performed by the Seattle Symphony, and a piano concerto by Haochen Zhang.

Pianist Haochen Zhang

Haochen Zhang’s piano concerto

The only performer to receive a standing ovation during Celebrate Asia was 23-year-old Haochen Zhang.
Zhang played Edvard Grieg’s piano concerto in A minor, Op. 16. with the Seattle Symphony.

Zhang saved the show. The disgruntled audience, after complaining about the early part of the program, happily cheered and applauded for the pianist, for which he returned to the stage and bowed three times.

Zhang didn’t grant the audience’s wish for an encore.

Zhang is different from famous pianists Lang Lang and Nobuyuki Tsujii, who performed for Celebrate Asia last year. Although Zhang and Lang had the same teacher, Gary Graffman of the Curtis Institute of Music in Philadelphia, Zhang is low key. He does not possess showmanship, which Lang fondly unveils in all of his concerts. Yet the longer we listened, the more we appreciated Zhang’s skills, along with his command and depth of the music for someone his age.

Zhang and Tsujii competed in the 2009 Van Cliburn International Piano Competition and tied for the gold medal. Tsujii revealed power and emotion when he hit his fingers on the keys. But Zhang took a little longer to warm himself up. For some reason, Zhang and the orchestra did not click during the first-minute introduction of “Allegro molto moderato.” As soon as he was comfortable, he exhibited virtuosity, vitality, and strength. Zhang started the piano at age 4, and came to the United States to study when he was 14. He now performs all over the world, including Europe and Asia. He told this reporter his hobbies are reading, writing Chinese poems, and painting.

How is Zhang connected to Seattle? Zhang’s mother was a childhood friend of Seattleite Peter Xu, when they went to school together.

Score competition winner Shuying Li and her husband Erzhan Xu

A couple out of millions

It’s not unusual to meet people in China whose goal is to pursue money. But the couple I met at Celebrate Asia, Shuying Li, who won the score competition, and her husband, Erzhan Xu, might be the one couple out of thousands, if not millions, from China whose goal is different.

Both are graduate students at the University of Michigan, aiming for doctoral degrees. Both are pursuing their passions — Li in music and her husband in social work.

“Social work?” I asked. So it’s not those subjects, including business, technology, communication, or international studies, that many Chinese nationals are attracted to? He was the first person from China that I ever met who was more interested in helping other people.

What exactly does Xu want to do with a degree in social work in China?

“Community organizing,” he said.

Now, that’s not a field for making money. Can it be much of a career in China? You never know. President Obama was a community organizer before. See where he is now!

The Nam Mai big screen

Nam Mai performers Nguyen Thanh Thuy, Ngo Tra My and Stefan Ostersjo

Nam Mai is like “horror music”

When talking about the first part of the concert, many politely responded, “I just don’t know.” A few shook their heads. One said, “I liked it when it ended…I didn’t know how to follow what the musicians and composers were trying to do.” A few simply said, “I don’t like it.”

One young man said, “It (Nam Mai) sounds like music for horror movies.” The melody focused on tension, fear, dissonance, drama, and horror. It is a piece for sophisticated audiences, who are accustomed to classical music. However, most of the Celebrate Asia audience is made up of the general public, who might not understand complex music. Many, like me, were there to support the Asian community, not music fans.

The images projected on the big screen for the music was distracting. I did not find one person, among the dozens I interviewed, who enjoyed the visual effects. Strangely, some indicated they liked Nguyen Thanh Thuy, who played the Vietnamese string instrument and changed her costumes to tie in with the mood of the music she performed.

In fairness, Nam Mai is a wonderful collaboration between the East and West — talented Scandinavian and Vietnamese artists. For two consecutive years, Celebrate Asia has presented a disappointing first part of the program. If there was a drop in attendance (1,425 this year and over 2,000 last year), that might be the reason. Viewers I talked to suggested to the committee that they select more pleasant and popular melodies for next year. On a Friday night, people are more interested in relaxing music. Few appreciate music with a mingling of unresolved musical chords, which induces stress. (end)

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