By Vivian Miezianko
Northwest Asian Weekly
Where can one enjoy a weekend of exciting classical music performances and unique photography presentations?
This weekend, the Northwest Sinfonietta is holding concerts in Seattle, Tacoma, and Puyallup. From April 15 to April 17, the Northwest Sinfonietta will conclude its 20th anniversary celebration with a festival showcasing three masterpieces in an entirely different light.
So what does a well-known orchestral work of Russian origin have to do with Asian culture and heritage?
“Pictures at an Exhibition” was composed as a piano suite by Modest Mussorgsky in 1874. Numerous conductors have led different arrangements of “Pictures” in a traditional format, with a full orchestra or with a chamber ensemble. Many of them were arranged for a chamber orchestra or common orchestra.
There is a twist to Northwest Sinfonietta’s presentation. Not only will it pair “Pictures” with images of Asian culture and heritage, but the orchestra will perform a seldom-heard version arranged by Chinese composer Julian Yu.
Another performance, featuring Joel Fan, a renowned pianist, will also have a multimedia presentation showcasing Seattle’s Asian communities as well.
Yoshi Minegishi, former chair of Celebrate Asia!, is an organizer of this project.
“Our goal is to create a very special relationship between Asians and non-Asians in the greater Seattle, which is so unique vis-a-vis the rest of the world in that there is no other cosmopolitan city that can harmoniously integrate Asian culture, local heritage, and Western symphonic music in one,” said Minigeshi.
For the concerts, Northwest Sinfonietta has collaborated with many organizations in the Chinese, Filipino, Japanese, Korean, and Vietnamese communities. The organizations have provided historical images to accompany the orchestral performance. There will also be artwork portraying Asian culture and heritage in the Northwest from the early 1900s to the present. These images will be projected above the orchestra during the concerts.
The founding music director of Northwest Sinfonietta, Christophe Chagnard, will conduct the program, which also includes the original jazz band version of Gershwin’s “Rhapsody in Blue,” featuring pianist Joel Fan, and an arrangement of Debussy’s “Prelude To the Afternoon of a Faun.”
“Pictures at an Exhibition”
In pairing up Mussorgsky’s “Pictures” with historical Asian images, Maestro Chagnard said that it was a long, collective process.
“The main people involved are Mr. Yoshi Minegishi, Neil Birnbaum (executive director of the Sinfonietta), and myself. … I viewed about 1,500 images personally and selected 350 of those. It was difficult, especially because I don’t have a lot of experience in Asian art. … We started this
process four months ago and kept refining it as we went. We also have images of immigrants.”
For those who doubt if the images of the Asian heritage in the Northwest will be at odds with music whose lovely titles range from “The Gnome,” to “Ballet of the Unhatched Chicks,” to “The Hut on Fowl’s Legs,” Chagnard offered some reassurance. “For me, the most important aspect was the emotion, how [the images] relate to the music. Each movement [of “Pictures”] is quite different – in energy and emotion. When putting together the images, we tried to go with the music.”
When asked what is special about Yu’s arrangement of “Pictures,” Chagnard answered, “It is very Asian-sounding. Unmistakably Asian. It has a mosaic of sounds with many different instruments, including percussion. … Mr. Yu also took a melody and split it among different instruments. … It is extraordinarily rich in colors. He also added his own notes as well. It is very surprising for people who know the piano version or the Maurice Ravel version. It is the Northwest premiere of it.”
Chagnard noted that Yu arranged it in 2001.
“Rhapsody in Blue”
Chagnard also talked a little about Gershwin’s “Rhapsody in Blue.”
“People are so used to the orchestral version, and our program would like to present masterpieces under a new light. I heard the jazz band version long ago, one recorded in 1924 with Gershwin himself at the piano. … I was struck by how different it sounded. Not only the jazz band sound, but the pacing as well. It is much faster. It is a big shock.
“Here is a piece of music that you take for granted [to be in a certain way],” continued Chagnard. “But you [can] get something so different [out of it].”
Fan is noted for his work with Yo-Yo Ma and the Silk Road Project. Based in New York, Fan began playing the piano at age 5. He spoke of how he discovered his love for the piano as a child.
“I’m Asian. My parents are from Taiwan. My parents were encouraging in dedication and practice, which is what it takes [to study the piano], but this is also something I enjoy doing very much. … I still remember the first piano I learned on.”
Fan is known for his performances of world music, as well as classical music.
“I think the piano is very versatile,” said Fan. “It can imitate all instruments, an orchestra, and sounds from other countries’ instruments. It’s like you have a universe of sounds in your fingers. … [It is important to] incorporate different sounds from other countries.”
In addition to performing around the world, Fan is working on his next album.
“I’d like all my albums to have both classics and contemporary and world music. It is one of my trademarks. … It is important to acknowledge the history and my training even when [I’m] branching off to play different types of music.”
On “Rhapsody in Blue,” Fan said, “I’ve played both versions. I like it. … [The jazz band version] has lots of energy. I’m looking forward to this performance and recreating the excitement of the music.” ♦
Northwest Sinfonietta’s concerts will be held at 7:30 p.m. on April 15 at the Nordstrom Hall of Benaroya Hall in Seattle, at 7:30 p.m. on April 16 at the Rialto Theater in Tacoma, and at 2 p.m. on April 17 at the Pioneer Park Pavilion in Puyallup. For more information, visit www.nwsinfonietta.org.
Vivian Miezianko can be reached at email@example.com.