By Kai Curry
Northwest Asian Weekly
The Seattle Symphony’s Celebrate Asia comes to us in the new year like a herald of spring, full of beautiful color and sound. For this year’s event, Douglas F. King Assistant Conductor Sunny Xuecong Xia will lead the Symphony in a program focusing on celebration and love.
Xia’s Seattle Symphony conducting debut occurred on Nov. 5, 2022, for the Family Concert, Nature Resounds, which highlighted the great outdoors as interpreted by composers such as Angelique Poteat and Tan Dun. An advocate of contemporary music, Xia studied violin from a young age. She describes herself as a “normal kid” growing up in Guangzhou, China, until the age of 14, when she received a scholarship to study music in Sydney, Australia.
“I didn’t know which direction my life would go at that point,” Xia said. While in high school, she studied with renowned professor, previously of Shanghai Conservatory, Peter Shixiang Zhang. When it came time to apply for college, Xia was convinced by her teachers to continue the study of music at Cleveland Institute of Music. How did she end up conducting in Seattle, you ask? “There was an instinct that I thought that conducting really spoke to me,” Xia shared. “There was something about the physicality of conducting that really drew me into that world.”
Xia recalls vividly one of the first times that conducting spoke to her. It happened while watching the first performance of the Australian World Orchestra, at none other than the famous Sydney Opera House.
“That was my first time ever seeing a live orchestra. I had the cheapest tickets so I was in the choir stand and I was able to watch the conductor the entire time. That was mind-blowing.” The conductor who mesmerized her then was Zubin Mehta, one of her heroes, although she’s not yet had the chance to meet him. In undergrad at Cleveland, while she continued with violin, Xia would attend rehearsals to observe the conductors.
“I really learned a lot by watching.” For her master’s degree, she decided to double major in conducting and violin.
The path led to Arizona State University, where Xia was pursuing her doctorate in 2021 when she participated in a selection process to be an Assistant Conductor for Seattle Symphony. Xia’s partner, also a violinist, is from Seattle, and she had seen the Symphony perform before.
“I’ve been connected to the Seattle arts community for quite some time so when that invitation came for the audition, it was a dream.”
Inevitably, Xia’s focus has gone nearly entirely to conducting since she joined the Symphony in 2022. Although she endeavors to keep practicing the violin, conducting is her world now, and it is an evolving world, as she continues to watch and learn from others.
“I’m still very early in my development. It’s been great this season at the Symphony because every week, there is a different guest conductor and as the fly on the wall that I am most of the time, I get to see the way they rehearse, the way they conduct [and] from each one, I take away so much. For that reason, I think I’m changing a lot. There is not one way I can define myself just yet.” Xia could not be happier.
“I would say this is my dream job, where I am right now.”
Xia is especially excited about the Celebrate Asia program for 2023, which revolves around Lunar New Year, the Spring Festival, and stories of star-crossed lovers.
“This entire program is something that’s really dear to me,” she enthused. “The first half, the Spring Festival Overture [by Huangzhi Li] really evokes the spirit of the spring…the Chinese cymbal, the Chinese drum…will evoke that sound world of the spirit of celebration of the Lunar New Year.” Xia grew up playing this piece in the youth orchestra in Guangzhou.
“That sound is already in my ear.”
She and most Asian audiences are also very familiar with the second number, the Butterfly Lovers Concerto by Chen Gang and He Zhan-Hao.
“That is something that I’ve listened to countless times. I grew up with it, it’s one of the signature classical pieces that originated from Chinese composers.” While Xia would have relished playing violin for this piece herself, she gladly hands that honor over to visiting violinist Kerson Leong, who has been called one of Canada’s greatest violinists and perhaps one of the world’s.
“Every time I see him play, it takes my breath away,” Xia expressed. “It’s a dream to have a soloist of this caliber.”
The show will progress the star-crossed lovers theme from Asian to Western, with the Romeo and Juliet Fantasy Overture by Tchaikovsky, and finish with the rousing Capriccio Espagnol by Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov.
“It’s a great celebration, very festive, in the spirit of this concert, and also features various, very dazzling solos…You will be very happy,”
Xia promised, and also told us of a secret surprise for the audience, related to the overall program.
“I think it’s a great tradition,” Xia said of Celebrate Asia. “It’s a great way to showcase oftentimes musicians of Asian background from inside the orchestra [and that] represent our greater community.” She appreciates Seattle Symphony’s dedication to diversity and inclusion, and has felt welcome since she came here.
“It’s been a really wonderful culture and I am very lucky to be in the position to help continue that culture of an organization that’s really a family. It’s really a lovely place to make music and to work.”
Xia doesn’t know what the future holds. She hopes to keep herself fresh on the violin, while devoting the bulk of her time and energy to conducting. At the same time, she and her partner will explore the beautiful surrounds of the Puget Sound, of which she had a taste last summer, hiking, camping, and kayaking. For now, she is excited to be a part of Celebrate Asia, and believes the program has something for everyone.
“In this opening chapter of 2023…as an Asian person, it’s heartwarming to see people of my background represented on the stage. I’m sure that everything that the orchestra is doing speaks to people of different backgrounds…I think that’s really important for our mission for the power of music to bring the community together.”
Celebrate Asia takes place on Jan. 29 at 4 p.m.
For more information, visit seattlesymphony.org/en/concerttickets/calendar/2022-2023/22celebrate-asia.
Kai can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.