2016 New York Philharmonic Year of the Monkey Concert

Article By Jasmin Justo

The New York Philharmonic in collaboration with CAMI Music, celebrated the Chinese New Year for the fifth consecutive year, this time welcoming the Year of the Monkey. This year’s program featured Maxim Vengerov, a renowned violinist, performing Chen Gang and He Zhanhao’s “The Butterfly Lovers”, and music director of the Shanghai Symphony Orchestra and chief conductor of the China Philharmonic Orchestra, Long Yu. Before the concert began, Honorable Ban Ki-Moon gave an inspirational speech wishing everyone a happy new year full of creativity and peace.

The concert began with Li Huanzhi’s traditional work, “The Spring Overture” conducted by Long Yu. A short song describes joys and wonders of the spring season. The song is a wonderful depiction of the Spring Festival (Lunar New Year) with its energetic opening and joyful theme. The Spring Overture is a popular classic in China, performed with both European and Chinese instruments.

“The Butterfly Lovers” is based on a Chinese folk tale, dating back to the late Tang Dynasty involving Liang Shanbo (a boy) and Zhu Yintai (a girl). Zhu Yintai ran away from home, disguised herself as a man and attended school for three years where she became close friends with Liang Shanbo. When she noticed that she was falling in love, she left the school. Liang went to look for his companion to discover that Zhu is a girl and that her father has arranged marriage with a wealthy man. Liang died from heartbreak and Zhu Yintai visited her grave where she begged the grave to open. A thunderclap opened the grave and Zhu jumped in. The two lovers than emerged as butterflies.

The first part begins with the solo violin in duet with the cello, depicting the mixed of feelings of happiness and sadness. The second part transitions to the deep sounds, bassoon, double bass, gong, to reflect Zhu’s defiance to the father arranging her marriage. The violin and cello duet reflecting Liang’s heartbreak and Zhu’s sadness. The last part transitions with a loud percussion crash, to depict the opening of the grave and ends with the harp and flute as the two lovers are reunited as butterflies.

“Tambourin chinois” a composition of the violinist Fritz Kreisler, is a unique piece of work. Unlike his other compositions, he received inspiration from a Chinese theater he visited in San Francisco and decided, “to write a free fantasy in the Chinese manner”. The song is short but lively and energetic with a brief intermission of sweet melody playing from the violins and flutes.

This year also featured the New York Premiere of Tan Dun’s “Nu Shu: The Secret Songs of Women”, a 13 microfilms with a symphony accompanied by Nancy Allen playing the harp. Nushu, is a vocal tradition created by women in Hunan, China in the 13th century. During this time, women were not allowed a formal education, therefore they created their own language and writing consisting of originally 500 characters but now 700, based on embroidery stitches and some Chinese characters. It is the only language known and used for and by women. The language itself is sung not spoken. Much of the tradition has been kept in the creation of a book called San Chao Shu or “Third Day Missives” which contains the thoughts and emotions of women for the past 800 years. Tan Dun, grew up in the rural villages and wanted to preserve the Nushu language tradition. “I wanted to do the field research, ethnomusicology study, collect the songs of Nushu and eventually compose a new symphonic concerto piece for the world and for my home village, to continue the tradition and to create a future from the past.”

At the concert, three screens were used to depict each scene at a different angle. One scene was of the family mourning for the lost of their husband, the daughter and mother both dressed in special attire singing loudly while rocking back and forth holding a rug. At one point, the mother’s tears give her a temporary pause while the daughter continued. In another scene, the mother and daughter are reading from the book and take turns reciting certain poems. At one of the last scenes, the cinematography captured the beautiful landscape of the village on a hill, the bridge that crosses over the nearby river and the various pathways inside the village. Near the finale, the longest clip depicts the women as they wash their clothes near the river while a young girl rowed her small boat and began making music with the splashes of the water. The whole scene of washing clothes became musical as sounds and clips were cut or zoomed in as the women sang. The symphony itself matched the mood of each clip, making the villagers and ambience of the place come alive in the concert hall.

The 2016 Chinese New Year Concert was full of amazing and talented musicians who truly ushered not only inspiration and creativity but truly delivered the message of hope for a prosperous and joyous new year!

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