At a lively press conference at the Oakland Asian Cultural Center in Chinatown Friday, Oakland East Bay Symphony music director and conductor Michael Morgan introduced San Francisco jazz composer, pianist and educator John Jang, whose piece “Chinese American Symphony” was commissioned by the symphony and will premiere at the symphony’s Sounds of China: Celebrating Chinese New Year concert Friday, Feb. 22, at the Paramount Theatre, along with music by Academy Award-winning Chinese composer Tan Dun, John Adams and Igor Stravinsky.
The conference also served as a preview for an innovative season for the East Bay Symphony, one that demonstrates their commitment to diversity and community building with unusual, provocative programming.
Sounds of China includes Stravinsky’s short orchestral piece, “Fireworks” (1908).
“You would expect Tan Dun on a program for Chinese New Years, and John Adams for ‘Nixon in China,’” Morgan said, “but not expect Stravinsky. It’s a four-minute piece. We hope the audience will see the connection to China, the East-West tie: we both have fireworks, and they come from China.”
Shared experience was the keynote to Morgan’s commentary.
“A diverse audience can just enjoy a great piece of music together,” he said, “then later younger people may go back out of curiosity to find out about the historical side—and older people can suddenly see different levels of experience, go back and fill in the gaps ... Even if we can’t talk about it, we can understand it together. It’s what we have in common, so we can begin to make a real community.”
Jang endorsed Morgan’s vision. “I remember seeing an Oakland East Bay Symphony concert,” he said, “where people of all different backgrounds, all the different colors embraced Mozart under Michael’s leadership, seeing that this music is for everybody.”
Jang’s “Chinese American Symphony” (with no hyphen; “it looks like a minus, less than American!” he said) is a tribute to the Chinese workers, from a nation “hurt by the Opium War” with England, “going to what they hope is a better land, to make money building the railroad, but the U.S. was hostile.”
He explained various melodies, orchestral sounds, colors and movements he uses to tell that story.
“It’s so immediate, audiences can latch onto the story,” Morgan said. “It’s why we commissioned a piece like this, and why we use composers who have the gift for making a connection for the audience: to transcend differences, bring people together who might not be able to communicate verbally.”
Jang explained the use of the two-stringed Chinese classical “violin,” the erhu, which will be played by erhu virtuoso Jiebing Chen, and a wealth of meaningful correspondences he’s built into the piece. “One movement’s 24 minutes intentionally—‘no work stoppage.’ The Chinese workers were incessant, working 24/7.”
“I’m hearing that for the first time!” laughed Morgan.
A little bit later, Jang paused in his spirited delivery for an aside: “Maybe I should stop here; this is getting more epic than the piece!”
Morgan discussed “Water Concerto for Water Percussion and Orchestra” (1998), written in memory of composer Toru Takemitsu by Dun, famed for his film score for Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon.
“The violin section actually has splash guards! It features percussionist Ward Spangler, who at one point plays the gong while it’s immersed in water—a completely different sound. And there’s the rhythms of splashing water like children in a bathtub. There’s lots of imagery people will get—in John Adams’ very theatrical ‘The Chairman Dances: Foxtrot for Orchestra’ (1985), a spinoff of ‘Nixon in China,’ with Madame Mao dancing with an effigy of her husband while Nixon plays cocktail piano ...
“All new pieces have an impact on coming generations,” Morgan continued, “who will associate the train in John’s piece with the erhu, will put the story together and understand why the elements go together ... learning history through music, making an initial association, then learning later what it means—like those of us who learned classical music through Bugs Bunny!”
Both Morgan and Jang spoke about how his piece brings out a hidden history, something untold, that would have an impact on second-generation Chinese Americans—a point ratified by audience members at the conference.
Other upcoming programs aim at the same diversity in music and audience experience: following Sounds of China is Notes from Persia on Friday, March 14, for Persian New Year, Nowwuz, the lunar spring holiday, dating back to a Zoroastrian holiday, celebrated around the Middle East and Central Asia.
The program is also musically diverse, with mezzo-soprano Raeeka Shehabi-Yaghmai singing Persian songs, composer Aminollah Hossein’s Piano Concerto No. 2 (1946), Loris Tjeknavorian’s Suite from the opera ‘Rostam and Sohrab’ (1985), as well as Richard Strauss’ ‘Don Juan’ (1889) and Sergei Rachmaninoff’s ‘Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini’ (1934). Pianist Tara Kamangar of the Royal Academy of Music in London will be featured.