By Kai Curry
NORTHWEST ASIAN WEEKLY
Douglas F. King Assistant Conductor Sunny Xuecong Xia led Seattle Symphony musicians through Celebrate Asia 2023 on Jan. 29, with a program focused on love and celebration. Familiar faces returned to the pre- and post-shows, while new talent, such as Xia herself and Canadian violinist Kerson Leong, offered extra excitement. Significant concert pieces included The Butterfly Lovers Concerto and a surprise number from the Symphony to close out the show.
Xia started studying violin in Guangzhou when she was a child. At 14, she received a scholarship to study in Australia. Later, at Cleveland Institute of Music, she branched into conducting. Thus, she was off on the path that brought her to Seattle and Celebrate Asia.
“I really do love conducting, working with people. It’s very challenging, but I do enjoy the challenge,” Xia told the Weekly. Xia’s conducting style is full of flare and grace. Perhaps because the Weekly had a chance to get to know her, another word that came to mind on Jan. 29 was love.
Xia loves her work and her fellow musicians. Her warm welcome to guest violinist Kerson Leong, for instance, was evident. Leong, who was born in Ottawa, Canada, started on violin at age 4. He has played around the world, including Beijing, China and Singapore, and has been heralded as one of the best violinists the world has so far seen. For this 15th annual Celebrate Asia, Leong joined the Symphony as a soloist for The Butterfly Lovers Concerto by Chen Gang and He Zhan-Hao. Dressed in tuxedo pants and a black shirt with gold piping, Leong’s expression was intense and respectful throughout this story of star-crossed lovers. The music was so evocative that actors were not needed—the feelings were there.
The program was like a mirror, with the intermission as its divider. On the two far sides was celebration, via the Spring Festival Overture by Huanzhi Li, of Chinese heritage, and Capriccio Espagnol by Rimsky-Korsakov, of Western heritage. On the interior sides was star-crossed love, via The Butterfly Lovers Concerto and Romeo and Juliet Fantasy Overture by Tchaikovsky, to complete the theme. All pieces were no doubt familiar to the audience, yet non-Western and newer compositions from all parts of the world have not been in the “canon” of classical music—something Xia adopted as a personal interest after time with the Cleveland Institute New Music Ensemble.
“That was my first step discovering this entire musical world…not just Haydn, Mozart, Beethoven, Tchaikovsky. New music…encompass[es] the entire output of all of the contemporary composers. There are…so many different styles…a whole rich area to discover.”
Pre-show and post-show saw familiar favorites returning to Benaroya Hall, some of which hadn’t been at Celebrate Asia since before the COVID-19 pandemic. GDPT Lieu Quan Vietnamese dancers wowed the crowd with their gorgeous traditional dress and flowing movements. The GDPT Lieu Quan head dancer took the opportunity to educate the audience about the ao dai, or long tunic, that both men and women customarily wear and which many associate with Vietnam. She described the ao dai as “a symbol of grace, beauty, and pride” and explained that, when wearing this garment, “for many, it’s about connection,” either to a heritage they don’t have much access to in the United States, or that they left back home in Vietnam.
As is customary, the Seattle International Lion Dance Team next arrived with great fanfare to welcome attendees into S. Mark Taper Foundation Auditorium for the main concert. Every year, the Team ups their game. This year, there were more lion dancers than ever, as well as a beautifully dressed woman who accompanied them by dancing with an undulating dragon kite, a miniature wu long, if you will. One could hear audience members gasp as they realized that some of the dancers performing such acrobatic feats were kids on the shoulders of the adults.
Undoubtedly one of the best parts of Celebrate Asia is the kids and the clothes. Participants and guests alike can be heard exclaiming over the gorgeous outfits that young and old wear to honor the occasion. Small girls with tassels in their hair or in damask dresses; solemn boys in their best formalwear; women in saris, sarongs, and colorful hanboks; and men in embroidered silk jackets. Also, for the first time, this year’s Celebrate Asia featured a “mini market” curated by Seattle Restored, and located on the second level promenade, where people could purchase Asian-inspired items such as pottery and textiles.
“For 15 years now, Seattle Symphony’s Celebrate Asia program has honored our region’s Asian American and Pacific Islander communities,” said emcee Mimi Jung of KING 5 News, who wore a gorgeous qipao. “It is a testament to the bonds of our community…that this cultural celebration has grown into a long-standing tradition—and we hope that it continues for years to come.”
The surprise? Just when everyone thought the concert was over, Xia returned to the stage to announce a final piece: Arirang Fantasy, a well-known Korean folk song dear to both North and South Korea, which unites them in a dream of one country, and on this day united all of us, in Xia and Seattle Symphony’s concluding message of hope and peace.
Afterwards, guests exited to the lobby to the resounding drums of CHIKIRI and the School of TAIKO. Viewing the drummers on their perch on the promenade from beneath, the drumbeats resounded in the chest, and one could see their powerful movements. Back this year, too, was the Rhythms of India, who encouraged attendees to pick up their heels, raise their arms, and join them as they performed songs and dance related to the harvest cycle and of course, celebration.
Kai can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.