By Jessica Kai Curry
Northwest Asian Weekly
“We don’t have walls. We are anti-wall.”
So spoke emcee Aleksa Manila at the kick-off of Seattle Symphony’s eleventh annual Celebrate Asia festival. Manila’s words were greeted with applause from a room full of people that came together to celebrate what sets us apart. While this year’s event spotlighted Korea, Taiwan, and Thailand, a broad range of Asian culture was represented. Regular favorites were present, such as Japan’s CHIKIRI and the School of TAIKO. New and young talent was recognized in the form of Celebrate Asia’s Composition Competition winner, Taiwan’s Chia-Ying Lin.
What became apparent throughout the performances was the possibility of unifying as a whole — a whole room, city, or country, while also celebrating individuality — be it that of a cultural tradition from a particular place, or the singular achievements of award-winning guest performers, including conductor Shiyeon Sung, soprano Kathleen Kim, and pianist Seong-Jin Cho.
Pre-show began with a rousing number from Morning Star Korean Cultural Center called “In the Beginning,” meant to depict the formation of the earth. “In the beginning, it wasn’t just spoken word,” explained the group’s artistic director, Sinae Cheh. “It was an explosive sound.” Colorfully-clad drummers recreated perfectly the seismic activity of volcanoes.
“Our mission is to share Korean culture, not just for Korean Americans and Korean American identity, but also to celebrate the diversity in our society,” said Cheh, who felt that performing at Celebrate Asia was a way to “contribute to our multicultural community.”
Morning Star was followed by the singing of Swaranjali School of Music, which marks its 20th year in 2019. According to the program, the school was formed to “bring awareness of the rich heritage of India with engaging vocal performances.” After two choral pieces, and another number from Morning Star based upon royal court dances, the audience’s attention was directed to the lion dancers of the International Lion Dance and Martial Arts Team, which heralded the opening of Benaroya Hall’s S. Mark Taper Foundation Auditorium for the concert.
Once everyone was seated, guest conductor Shiyeon Sung entered to a round of applause. From Pusan, South Korea, Sung has been Boston Symphony Orchestra’s assistant conductor since 2007, and collaborates with the Seoul Philharmonic Orchestra, where she has been associate conductor since 2009. Sung’s presence on the stage and in the conducting world is remarkable in a field where women are not often seen, in Seattle or in the world. Her conducting style is elegant yet precise. Not a single extra move was made as she led Gramophone’s Orchestra of the Year through a series of pieces, starting with John Adam’s The Chairman Dances: Foxtrot for Orchestra from Nixon in China.
On this night, Seattle audiences were privileged to witness a world premiere: competition winner Lin’s Ascolsia, a piece based on traditional folk music of Taiwan called Beiguan. “It has a high-pitched, clear, festive, and exhilarated character, often used in traditional ceremony, parade, temple, or funeral,” explained Lin to the Weekly. The title, she said, was a word she created from three words and two languages — Italian and English. Lin intended for Ascolsia to be “an invitation for different cultures to listen to each other and be able to celebrate the Asian influences by using a western medium like orchestra.” At the end of the piece, the young composer ascended the stage to hug the conductor and accept her accolades.
No sooner was Lin’s premiere accomplished, then the pianist that some audience members described as a “rock star” appeared: Seong-Jin Cho. Hailing originally from Seoul, and winner of a gold medal at the Chopin International Competition in 2015, Cho gave a masterful performance of Rachmaninoff’s Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini, Op. 43. His fingers danced across the keys like Fred Astaire, and at other times, he struck the keys so forcefully he nearly propelled himself from the bench. Watching him seemed to confirm that this year’s Celebrate Asia was about the performers and their achievements as individuals, as men and women, and as Asians. Cho’s performance inspired a lengthy standing ovation — and the gift from him of an encore — Franz Liszt’s, “La Campanella” from Grandes Études de Paganini. A few audience members were seen wiping their eyes.
Enter soprano Kathleen Kim, who debuted at the Metropolitan Opera in 2007. A browse of media coverage about Kim gives an impression of her as a consummate professional and a maverick — someone that doesn’t hesitate to tackle new material. Kim began her set with such a piece, Unsuk Chin’s snagS&Snarls (scenes from Alice in Wonderland). The audience laughed appreciatively as the soprano flawlessly sang snippets from the famous song, and famously quirky story, including multiplication tables.
After a piece from Thailand by Narong Prangcharoen, titled Pubbanimitta, in which Kim did not sing, she returned to close the show with two traditional Korean songs, New Arirang and I Miss Mount Keumkang. Clothed in a gorgeous white hanbok and a dazzling headpiece, Kim, along with conductor Sung, invited the audience to sing along. Perhaps out of respect, or perhaps because of the formal setting and genre, which seemed to inhibit Kim somewhat from opening up until close to the end, the room was hesitant. Finally, Kim and Sung both held out their arms and a deep murmur of voices at last responded.
Multicultural events exist for those who already know, and those who are learning. Older audience members thrill to hear a favorite melody or watch a cherished traditional dance, while younger generations are exposed to their heritage, and those that do not hail from any of the cultures represented benefit in education. Somewhere along the way, be it caught up in the post-show dancing of the Rhythms of India, or absorbed by the flying fingers of pianist Cho, everyone joins in a harmony of intention and experience, to share in a room without walls.
Jessica Kai can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.