In the Chinese calendar, it’s the Year of the Rabbit. And things are, well, hopping with Pacific Symphony and its annual Lunar New Year celebration. Begun in 2017, this concert, which features jubilant music, festive dance, and an enchanting fusion of musical traditions from East and West, takes place on Jan. 28 at the Renée and Henry Segerstrom Concert Hall in Costa Mesa.
For Music Director Carl St. Clair, who is in his 33rd year leading the orchestra and who toured China with the band in 2018, the event is a chance to continue forging strong bonds with the community. “The purpose of Pacific Symphony is to welcome as many diverse communities in Orange County as possible and [here] to come together in this grand celebration of pan-Asian music and dance.
“The results,” the maestro added, “are astonishing. And if I started talking about the soloists, the old ones, the young ones, the guzheng [a Chinese plucked zither, performed here by Jiangli Yu] and bamboo flutes and dancing, I would be remiss and start leaving people out. It’s filled with Korean music, Vietnamese American music, and even Beethoven gets in there.
“Every year we’ve done this, but I can’t take credit because it’s the brainchild of Charlie and Ling Zhang,” continued St. Clair. “Charlie is a member of our board, and he’s a dear, dear friend and lover of the arts, Pacific Symphony, and the community.”
With Ronald Banks returning as emcee, the program, which is a multimedia event featuring video projections by Sean Yu, opens with Huanzhi Li’s Spring Festival Overture. Based on traditional Chinese folk dance, replete with fans and ribbons, the work in Pacific Symphony’s interpretation will feature beautifully clad dancers from Yaya Dance Academy.
Featuring choreography by Yaya Zhang, herself a graduate of the prestigious Beijing Dance Academy who moved to the States in 2007 before founding her eponymous school in 2014, the Lunar New Year celebration is a chance for 52 of her dancers to shine.
Ranging in age from 6 to nearly 70, the performers, Zhang said, are not professional. “It’s [usually] impossible to have that age range be onstage,” the choreographer noted, “but through our training, even audience members can’t tell that they’re nonprofessionals.
“But they are really good,” added Zhang, who is assisted by Radhanath Thialan, a choreographer and associate artistic director of her school. “And Carl St. Clair gives us this opportunity every year. He’s the master, and he’s very nice to us, even though sometimes the dancers need more time to rehearse, but he always has patience with them.”
As for the near septuagenarian, Zhang said she performs on the program in Shunxiang Zhang’s Peking Opera Impression, which features a bevy of females moving in diaphanous long-sleeved costumes, just one of the four different sets of attire that add another dimension to the concert.
Other works on the program include Xiang Hou’s New Year’s Greeting (arranged by Phoon Yew Tien); Yeong-Seob Choe’s Longing for Mt. GeumGang, featuring soprano Nayoung Ban; and the “Solar” excerpt from Viet Cuong’s Re(new)al, played by a percussion ensemble made up of Soojin Kang, Jeremy Davis, Zoe Beyler, and Austin Cernosek.
Cuong is Pacific Symphony’s composer-in residence for the next three years, and St. Clair noted that “putting this program together is much more difficult than programming half a season. I don’t know a lot about Peking opera, and I have to do research, for example, but Yaya helps me, and Charlie also brings some things to my attention.”
St. Clair stresses that research is also key to making the entire concert successful. “I have to find the right combination of people so everyone feels included. And the narrator, Ronald Banks, takes us through each of these pieces. He’s such a great performer and a baritone himself, but it’s a masterful job of linking these various pieces in such a poetic and profound way. It’s very important he’s with us as well.”
Also on the bill is the Fantasy on Georges Bizet’s Carmen, Op. 25, by Franz Waxman and performed by violinist Chloe Chua. “She’s an up-and-coming star,” St. Clair enthused. “She won the [junior division of the 2018] Yehudi Menuhin International Competition.”
And it seems that no program in Southern California would be complete without at least one work from film composer extraordinaire John Williams, who turned 90 last year. His “Sayuri’s Theme,” from the 2005 epic film Memoirs of a Geisha, will be danced by soloist Cheryl Ku.
“That might be the highlight for me this year,” admitted Zhang, who choreographed the number. “It’s very artistic and will be performed on a rotating stage — and the dancer is only 16 years old. She’s already got a lot of awards and trophies in international dance competitions.”
Another work from the Western canon is the fourth movement of Beethoven’s Symphony No. 9, with soprano Nayoung Ban, mezzo-soprano I-Chin Feinblatt, tenor Nicholas Preston, bass Zaikuan Song, American Feel Young Chorus under the direction of Sam Wei-Chih Sun, and Pacific Chorale, led by Robert Istad.
“What is a better message than Beethoven’s Ninth?” said St. Clair, who last September announced that he’ll pass the baton at Pacific Symphony to a new successor, possibly at the end of the 2023–2024 season. For now, though, St. Clair, a youthful 70, still relishes making music, with Beethoven’s Ninth a particularly apt choice for this special concert.
“We have to become brothers, and what does it better than this Lunar New Year celebration? The real purpose of the orchestra and community is to bring people together through classical music — to elevate and strengthen bonds and brighten souls.
“Sometimes,” St. Clair chuckled, “I’ve had to take lessons in Chinese to be able to pronounce the texts of some of these songs, but this year I won’t have to do it, because [the ‘Ode to Joy’] is in German. And we always finish every concert with ‘America the Beautiful.’
“It’s a great moment for us, for Orange County, and for our communities as we come together to celebrate with music, art, and dance. We’ll be here for a long time with this program,” said St. Clair. “And for Orange County, it’s as big as the New Year’s concert in Vienna. This is a huge event for us.”