A slimmed-down National Chinese Orchestra Taiwan presented a night of magical music at the Orpheum Theatre on Saturday (September 2) night. Nine of the Taipei-based orchestra’s 50-odd members, along with the associate conductor, came to Canada for the opening of Vancouver TAIWANfest. They dazzled more than 1,000 audience members with a wide variety of Chinese instruments.
The orchestra conceived its Splendid Formosa program with a straightforward objective. They wanted to present Taiwan as an island that embraces the world—as seen through the eyes of contemporary musicians. They opened with “Dance of the Amis”, a tribute to the most populous of Taiwan’s 16 officially recognized Indigenous tribes. It wove together two Amis folk songs: “Dancing to the Moon” and “Pestle Dance”.
That was followed by “The Musical Sketch of Rain”, a contemporary composition by Hsin-Pin Lin. Born in the Taiwanese city of Taichung, Lin studied music in China before heading to the U.S., where she earned degrees from the Berklee College of Music and Columbia University. Her music incorporates western elements, making it ideally suited for the theme of Splendid Taiwan.
In the capable hands of the orchestra, “The Musical Sketch of Rain” demonstrated the rich sounds of a wide variety of Chinese instruments, including the erhu, pipa, zhongruan, and gehu. After the concert, one Taiwanese-born attendee told me that she didn’t grow up appreciating Chinese music. However, she felt blown away by the muscians’ talent and artistry.
Next, the musicians performed, “Ciocârlia”, interpreting a Romanian folk song about a skylark with Chinese instruments. Concertmaster Chen-Ling Liu somehow made her koudi, a flute-like instrument, sound like a chirping bird, much to the amazement of the Orpheum audience.
Sheng master fills Orpheum with sounds of Spain
Some of the most memorable moments came during solo performances. The first featured Meng-Lan Gao’s bravura work on the daguangxian in “The Melody of Memory”. This two-stringed bowed instrument is played in the lap upright, primarily in Taiwan and Fujian among Hakka and Minnan-speaking people. Gao managed to create silky, soft, and yet still gloomy tones from this bass instrument, making it almost sound like a person crying.
Prior to the concert, the associate conductor, Sheng-Wen (Adam) Chou, told me that the principal sheng player, Chi-Mi Chen, is a genius. That was clear from the start but most spectacularly in his rousing solo in “España cañí”. This was truly a sight to behold: a collection of Taiwanese musicians performing the most famous piece of Spanish music on traditional Chinese instruments.
Also known as the “Gypsy Dance”, the eight bars of arpeggiated chords came to life with Chen’s mastery of the sheng. It’s a large, two-directional ancient wind instrument that dates back more than three millennia. Many audience members were likely unaware that Chen studied world music in graduate school. Nor did the orchestra announce that he also plays the piano, saxophone, and sitar, in addition to being a composer.
“España cañí” was a fitting choice, given that Spain briefly colonized northern Taiwan in the 17th century before Dutch colonists from the south drove them out. In the previous century, sailors from Portugal gave the island the name of Formosa, which means “beautiful” in their language.
The first section concluded with Vancouver singer-songwriter Ginalina taking the stage for “Jasmine Flower”, likely the world’s most famous Chinese folk song. In Mandarin, she effortlessly sang “What a pretty jasmine flower” and the other lyrics, hitting all the notes with subtle musical accompaniment.
“Clinking Coins” showcases percussion virtuoso
Composed in the 18th century in Jiangsu province, “Jasmine Flower” has been interpreted in many ways. For example, Italian composer Giacomo Puccini included one version in his Turandot opera. More recently in 2011, pro-democracy protesters in China played the song on their cellphones during what became known as the Jasmine Revolution. Canadian Céline Dion also sang “Jasmine Flower” during a performance in China.
Following the intermission, the orchestra performed “Clinking Coins”. According to the Digital Taiwan website, this song symbolizes ancestors’ hardship and their persistent and courageous spirit in opening up territory in early Taiwan. The sound of the bamboo xylophone represents rain falling on trains entering a tunnel.
“Although the melody still keeps the aura of pentatonic scale, it is presented with polyphonic music and harmony at the same time,” the website states.
Digital Taiwan adds that the song’s rhythm “expresses complicated states of mind at that time”.
“Clinking Coins” included an absolutely unforgettable solo by principal percussionist Ya-Hsueh Lin in which she showed brilliant dexterity on the bamboo xylophone and other instruments. Often, drum solos take place at the back of the stage. But in this instance, the orchestra moved all of the percussion equipment to the foreground, showcasing Lin’s prodigious talent.
In keeping with the concert’s diverse theme, the orchestra followed with “The Hakka Folk Song”, featuring a magnificent yang-qin solo by Ming-Hui Lin. The yang-qin is a large dulcimer instrument with nearly 150 strings, providing bass, tenor, and chromatic sounds.
A concert for everyone
The final two numbers, the melodic “Slowly Rowing on Jasmine Waves” and “The Rain”, had a hypnotic effect, taking me away from Vancouver to a faraway land. With these songs, the superlative musicians came together to elicit a mood that only world-class symphonies can achieve.
For those unfamiliar with Chinese musical instruments, it was an introduction to a wondrous new universe. Meanwhile, audience members from Taiwan could bask in the pride of their homeland, which has thrived since martial law was lifted in 1987.
The National Chinese Orchestra Taiwan was founded in 1984 and makes a point of performing music created by contemporary Taiwanese conductors. As it approaches its 40th anniversary, the orchestra’s success personifies the blossoming of Taiwanese arts and culture, which coincided with the rise of democracy.
Freedom has not only brought ballot boxes to Taiwan. It also led directly to the imaginative and emotional musical interpretations on display at the Orpheum during Vancouver’s TAIWANfest. Glory to Taiwan!
TAIWANfest continues at various downtown Vancouver locations until Monday (September 4). For more information on the National Chinese Orchestra Taiwan, visit Facebook page, YouTube channel or official website under Taiwan’s Ministry of Culture. Follow Pancouver on Twitter @PancouverMedia and on Instagram @PancouverMedia.