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OneSong Orchestra re-invents Asian folk songs in Burnaby with violins, cellos, and other string instruments

OneSong Lee Che-Yi
OneSong Orchestra music director Lee Che-Yi performed to a full house. Photo by Charlie Smith.

Breathtaking musical artistry and plenty of conducting charisma were on display at the Shadbolt Centre for the Arts on Sunday (April 21) at the Sound from Formosa concert. The highly regarded OneSong Orchestra, led by famed Taiwanese musician Lee Che-Yi, demonstrated how a first-rate strings players can re-invent Asian folk songs in ways that the composers never could have imagined.

The 15 musicians from Taiwan opened with “Theme of Alishan”, which refers to a mountain range in the island nation’s central-southern region. Lee, a 40-time Golden Melody Awards nominee, told a crowd that this was originally an Indigenous song. In fact, the word “Alishan” is believed to be linked to the word “Alit”, which means “ancestor mountain” in several Indigenous languages.

On this and many other pieces, concertmaster and violinist Huang Yu-Feng demonstrated his stunning talent. Throughout the concert, he often made his instrument sing in ways that were so deeply affecting.

Huang, of course, wasn’t the only accomplished musician on the stage. Fellow violinists Cheng Han-Husan, Li I-Ching, Lee Ssu-Wei, and the others also tugged at the audience’s hearts, as did astonishing violincello principal Lee Chien-Hua. Through it all, the contrabass principal, Chiu Yi-Husan kept the beat magnificently, looking as if she was having the time of her life on-stage in Canada.

OneSong reflects diversity of Taiwan

Another highlight was Lee’s banter before every piece, which was ably translated into English by Vancouver harpist Vivian Chen. He was funny and informative as he oozed charm and confidence in the James Cowan Theatre. This shouldn’t come as a surprise, given that Lee has produced about 110 albums and composed nearly 2,000 works in his storied career.

The first half of the concert was devoted to Asian folk songs, reflecting the breadth of peoples in the region. After “Theme from Alishan”, the musicians performed a Mongolian folk song, “Yellow Bird”, followed by a Hakka folk song, “Raining Sky”. At one point, Lee told the audience that Taiwan is known for its diversity as a result of waves of colonization, noting that people of Southern Min heritage form the largest group within the country.

After making those remarks, the orchestra launched into a Taiwanese folk song, “The Coquette Tease the Doyen”, followed by “Green Island Lullaby”, “Evening Primrose”, and the Lee-composed “Raining in April Fantasy”.

OneSong
Lee Che-Yi signed autographs for his fans after the concert. Photo by Charlie Smith.

Following the intermission, Vivian Chen, who lives in Vancouver, took a turn as guest solo harpist. She joined the orchestra for Lee’s “Double Happiness: Concerto for Harp Solo and String Orchestra”. Chen explained that this song reflected the trials and tribulations of a marriage between a Taiwanese man and Vietnamese woman. The man had visited Vietnam for three days, found his spouse, and brought her back to his country to live.

It was a deeply emotional piece, capturing the highs and lows that would accompany such a union. Chen’s harp playing shone brightly amid the various string instruments.

Orchestra closes with a crowd pleaser

This was followed by another Lee composition, “Makatoo Rhapsody”, in which the orchestra conveyed the sounds of a rooster in conversation with a grasshopper. Then after performing “If Open My Hart” and “The Moon Represents My Heart”, OneSong Orchestra delivered another Lee composition, “Dancing Strings”.

Here, after nearly two hours on-stage, the musicians played the strings equivalent of an electronic dance music tune with incredible speed and dexterity. As music director, Lee has been instructing them to play this number as quickly as possible in an effort to appeal to younger music lovers.

On this occasion, they certainly passed the master’s test. That led to a roaring standing ovation from the full house in the James Cowan Theatre.

It’s no wonder that Lee was surrounded by well-wishers and autograph-seekers when he strolled into the lobby after the concert.

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Charlie Smith

Charlie Smith

Pancouver editor Charlie Smith has worked as a Vancouver journalist in print, radio, and television for more than three decades.

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We would like to acknowledge that we are gathered on the traditional and unceded territories of the Coast Salish peoples of the xʷməθkwəy̓əm (Musqueam), Skwxwú7mesh (Squamish), and Səl̓ílwətaɬ (Tsleil-Waututh) Nations. With this acknowledgement, we thank the Indigenous peoples who still live on and care for this land.