January 31, 2016 was my first time attending a Seattle Symphony concert this season. It was also my first time attending their annual Celebrate Asia concert, which is now in its eighth year. After traveling over the past few months and attending concerts by the Minnesota Orchestra in Minneapolis, and the Israel Philharmonic Orchestra in San Francisco, I was glad to be back in my hometown hall.
I will admit that I was initially unsure about going to this concert. The Seattle Symphony is with no doubt an amazing orchestra, and I go to their concerts several times a year. My taste for music is highly biased towards classical, so a program of Asian music did not appeal to me right away. Nevertheless, I decided to go this year after hearing great reviews from Celebrate Asia concerts of years past.
A full hour before the main program, various dance groups from the Seattle area presented a pre-concert in the lobby of Benaroya Hall. Surrounded by a crowd of hundreds of concertgoers, they performed traditional dances of the Lao and Iranian cultures. It was a delight to see live and in person how people of different backgrounds expressed themselves through dance. The real highlight of the pre-concert was a traditional Lion Dance by the Northwest Kung Fu & Fitness Lion Dancers. This particular dance was cleverly set up, with drummers on the stage pounding away, and the lions emerging from their den that was the main auditorium of the hall. The lion dancers cleverly ushered the spectators into the hall, where the concert was about to begin.
— Seattle Symphony (@seattlesymphony) February 1, 2016
The main program featured guest conductor Jindong Cai of Stanford University, as well as many soloists. Overall, Cai led the orchestra with passionate dynamics and a fine-tuned nuance. He was also quite down-to-earth, conversing and joking with the audience between pieces. Piano soloist Charlie Albright, a Washington native, performed a sweeping rendition of Xiaogang Ye’s Starry Sky, a piece premiered at the 2008 Beijing Olympics. The audience also witnessed two world premieres, the latter of which featured a concerto for santoor (a Persian stringed instrument shaped like a trapezoid and played like a dulcimer), and accordion. You’ll be hard pressed to find this combination of instruments in any other concerto. And this was only the first half of the program!
The second half featured a Tan Dun piece, Passacaglia: Secret of Wind and Birds. Maestro Cai explained to the audience how Tan Dun seeks to use sounds from nature in his compositions. Cai then proceeded to start the piece, but not without some audience participation. This was where hundreds of audience members — myself included — pulled out their smartphones and joined along, each phone playing prerecorded bird sounds. It was such an unusual atmosphere that one could distinctly hear muted laughter, confusion, and wonder at all the chirping and warbling interspersed throughout the auditorium. You can see a performance of this piece by a different orchestra in the video below.
Celebrate Asia ended with two traditional Korean songs and two traditional Chinese songs, sung by the combined Korean Music Association Evergreen Choir and the Seattle Chinese Chorus along with a full orchestra. The last piece on the program, Jasmine Flower (茉莉花) resonated with me as a beautiful arrangement of a traditional Chinese song, embellished with bold yet delicate orchestral sounds. After the standing ovation, Maestro Cai would lead the orchestra and chorus in one last encore, America the Beautiful, perhaps as a reflection of his experience traveling aboard and hearing that same piece performed.
But even after the last notes of America the Beautiful resonated through the hall, the celebration was not done yet. Concertgoers were greeted by several performers from CHIKIRI, performing a taiko drum dance. The heart-pounding rhythms and precision of the drummers must have caught everyone’s attention, as many stayed to listen to the post-concert performance. Finally, the post-concert and celebration closed with a participatory Bollywood dance led by an instructor from the Rhythms of India Dance School.
At the end of the day, I was thoroughly satisfied. Celebrate Asia was wonderfully put together, and I was delightfully surprised to see an abundant number of cultures represented. It was truly a celebration as the title would suggest, with all manners of performance from orchestra to dance to rhythm included in the program. If you plan to see next year’s Celebrate Asia, do come early and enjoy all of the festivities!