Red paper lanterns and playful primates are signaling the arrival of a new year — the Year of the Monkey — and the return of a tradition, the Symphony Center Presents Chinese New Year Celebration Concert. This year’s program showcases the Beijing-based China Broadcasting Chinese Orchestra, led by Kapang Pang, its artistic director and chief conductor, in its Chicago debut. This special performance, which features a pre-concert appearance by winners of the Chinese Fine Arts Society Confucius Competition, is part of Chicago’s annual citywide Chinese New Year celebration.
Pang’s excitement and anticipation of this year’s festivities came through clearly in an email interview, translated and edited from his native language.
What makes Chinese New Year so popular among so many people who are not Chinese?
Chinese New Year begins with Spring Festival, which represents a time of family reunion as well as a new beginning. So even though we have different cultures, I think most Westerners understand that this time of the year brings loved ones together to share the familiar sentiments of saying goodbye to the past and welcoming new opportunities in the coming year.
Tell us what you love most about the celebration.
I get to conduct different orchestras playing pieces about celebration. Since 2000, I’ve led the China Broadcasting Chinese Orchestra at the Goldener Saal Wiener Musikverein for the China-Vienna New Year Concert. And since 2002, every year right before Spring Festival, I’ve conducted orchestras including the Czech National Symphony, Salzburg Mozart Symphony and many others at Goldener Saal. We play a lot of great music — not only Chinese but European, also.
Apart from conducting concerts, I like to celebrate the Spring Festival with my family. That is our tradition.
How does your musical program capture the essence of Chinese New Year?
We are touring with 35 musicians (the entire CBCO has 108 musicians). We are bringing some representative pieces of our repertoire, notably a collaboration between renowned Chinese banhu (fiddle) player Kemei Jiang and a great cellist, Katinka Kleijn, of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra. They are perfect matches for our orchestra. Our concert definitely will bring a fresh experience to Chicago audiences.
Also, since this is Chinese New Year, I have paid special attention to the music that is joyful and rhythmic. We begin with the well-known Spring Festival Prelude and Moonlit River in Spring, which features a beautiful pipa (lute) solo. We have a piece with a suona (reed) solo that is a must for every Chinese festival, as well as a new arrangement of the classic Silk Road and Flowing Stream, an arrangement of Chinese folk songs.
What is your orchestra’s special mission?
The CBCO was founded in 1953. It combines the sounds of instruments of Chinese ethnic minorities and others. Over the years, the orchestra has brought together all of the spectacular characteristics of Chinese musical elements and become a great cultural treasure. At first, the orchestra’s primary mission was to record programs for local Chinese radio stations. Now our productions and new arrangements set an example for traditional orchestras in China and overseas. We put a lot of effort in producing and performing major pieces of Chinese symphonic music and recordings. Meanwhile, we also cultivate appreciation for many musicians of different historical times. Thanks to the late Chinese conductor and composer Xiuwen Peng, one of the founders of the orchestra, the CBCO today is a unique voice with important signature pieces.
How did you become involved with the orchestra?
My being the artistic director and chief conductor of the CBCO is the result of a rare opportunity. When I was a first-year graduate student at Central Conservatory of Music in Beijing, I was hired as a conductor-in-residence at China Symphony Orchestra. At that time, there was no college major for conducting a Chinese folk orchestra, so I studied Western classical music and opera. Afterward, I went to the Netherlands and luckily was accepted for the Kirill Kondrashin International Master Class for Conductors. I was proud to be the only conductor from Asia. Kirill Petrenko, who later became the director of Berlin Philharmonic, also was in my class.
After acquiring the certificate, I came back to China, only to find out that the China Symphony Orchestra no longer existed. But the CBCO was still there, under the leadership of Maestro Xiuwen Peng. Sadly, in 1996, he passed away just before an important concert in Hong Kong, and I was asked to conduct the concert. So I learned a lot about Chinese folk music in a very short time and was hired to lead the orchestra.
How has Chinese orchestral music evolved?
Even though we say “what belongs to a nation belongs to the world,” it has to be related to the world — the color, sound and repertoire of an orchestra should have something in common with the rest of the world so that more people can enjoy it. Curiosity alone is not enough to move things forward. Therefore, I have borrowed the symphony training method from the West, which is scientific and systematic.
Today’s Chinese orchestras only have a history of little more than 60 years, which means there is a lot of opportunity for improvement. Now we only have composers doing commissions for Chinese orchestras, and all those composers are Chinese. But I believe that, in time, there will be foreign composers willing to compose for Chinese orchestras — when they hear more of them.
The CSO recently completed a tour of five Asian cities. Were you able to see a performance?
Unfortunately, I wasn’t able to hear the CSO in Beijing because I had a concert, but I know the CSO very well. Thanks to the Internet, you can have access to all sorts of records and videos. That’s how I got to know the CSO when I was in college, especially the works of Sir Georg Solti, the great Hungarian conductor. The brass section, the color of the tone, and that unique tension and vibe of the CSO all are really amazing. With a Chinese orchestra, which doesn’t have a brass section, you have to use other Chinese instruments to make the orchestra sound rich.
What benefits of cultural exchange do you see?
Cultural exchange is inevitable and should be strongly promoted. Every country has its own culture and ideology, but one common thing is the pursuit of beauty — and, of course, music, which has no boundaries. It would be wonderful if every country could promote the best of its culture through artists and musicians, to let more people learn more about each other. China has thousands of years of history of civilization, and there are many forms of art and music that are unknown in the rest of the world. Without cultural exchange, we can’t share them.
The CSO is one of the best orchestras in the world; the CBCO also is one of the best. I think it would be good if composers could be commissioned to create a work for these two orchestras: a great symphonic collaboration of East and West. Just imagine musicians from CSO and CBCO playing together on stage. What an amazing picture!
What advice can you share for people to have a Happy New Year?
Leave behind the bad memories and troubles and just think that the coming new year will bring good fortune, health and world peace. I wish everyone a happy Chinese monkey year!
Note: Ticketholders are invited to come early for a special pre-concert performance featuring the Chinese Fine Arts Society Confucius Competition winners. This event is scheduled for 2 to 2:30 p.m. in the Grainger Ballroom at Symphony Center. Specially discounted tickets are available with a minimum purchase of four tickets by using promotional code: FAMILY4 at checkout. Discounted pricing for groups of 10 or more also is available. Call (312) 294-3040 for details. More information about Chicago’s city-wide Chinese New Year celebrations is available at choosechicago.com/chinesenewyear.
Joe Pixler is a Chicago-based arts journalist.