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Inside the Music

Program Notes: Lunar New Year

Junping Qian
Junping Qian, conductor

On Saturday, February 5, the Minnesota Orchestra presents the first of three concerts during February celebrating Lunar New Year, with Junping Qian conducting music that honors family traditions and themes of unity and health.

The program, which was constructed with artistic guidance from the Orchestra’s Principal Bassoon Fei Xie, features several soloists: Assistant Concertmaster Rui DuGao Hong on pipa in the premiere of her concerto Guangxi Impression, and two performers with a special connection to the Orchestra: jing hu master Zhengang Xie and yue qin master Mei Hu, Peking Opera musicians who are Fei Xie’s parents.The concert, which is presented as part of The Great Northern, takes place at Orchestra Hall on Saturday, February 5, 2022, at 8 p.m.

The concert will be broadcast live on Twin Cities PBS (TPT MN Channel), with William Eddins serving as host, and will be available for online streaming and on the Orchestra’s social media channels. It will also be broadcast live on stations of YourClassical Minnesota Public Radio, including KSJN 99.5 FM in the Twin Cities. On Sunday, February 6, the Orchestra will present another Lunar New Year concert in a slightly shorter version geared toward families for in-person audiences only. Then, beginning on Monday, February 14, the Orchestra will share a free, online-only Lunar New Year Young People’s Concert incorporating video from the February 5 concert and other content, complemented by online curriculum materials.

Program Notes

Choi Sunghwan
Arirang Fantasy

The Korean folk song Arirang, an expression of nostalgia in the face of separation, is popular throughout the divided peninsula, serving as an unofficial national anthem. It is heard at this  concert in a version written in the 1970s by North Korean composer Choi Sunghwan that was notably performed by the New York Philharmonic on its 2008 tour to North Korea and South Korea. Featuring lush Romantic harmonies and key solo moments for harp and flute, Arirang Fantasy opens with the lyrical Arirang melody, which is varied freely in the opening section, gradually increasing in speed. After a plaintive digression into minor harmonies, the music returns to a happier major key, grows faster and triumphant, then dials back to a slow, calm close.

Arirang is a song of great flexibility: its lyrics and melody have been modified over the years to such an extent that musicologists have identified about 60 principal versions and at least 3,600 variants. Its malleability has led to a variety of uses in the North and South, from protest to solidarity to sporting events. At the Opening Ceremonies of the 2018 Winter Olympics in Pyeongchang, South Korea, athletes from South Korea and North Korea marched together in unity as the song’s most common version, Jeongseon Arirang, was played.

Chen Gang/He Zhanhao
The Butterfly Lovers Violin Concerto 

The Butterfly Lovers Violin Concerto is credited jointly to two composers—Chen Gang (b. 1935) and He Zhanhao (b. 1933), who collaborated on its composition in 1959 while they were students at the Shanghai Conservatory of Music. Cast in one long movement and subdivided into seven sections, the concerto is a musical representation of the Chinese legend of the Butterfly Lovers, with the solo violin representing the protagonist Zhu Yingtai, and the cello part symbolic of her lover Liang Shanbo. Chen was responsible for the majority of the concerto’s scoring, while He’s primary contribution was the work’s famous opening theme.

The concerto is scored for a standard-sized Western orchestra, and utilizes a variety of traditional Chinese techniques and styles to create a sound world suitable for its story. Among them are the use of a five-pitch pentatonic scale and a number of melodies from Chinese folk songs and from a well-known Chinese opera version of the Butterfly Lovers story. Across the concerto we follow Zhu and Liang as they meet in childhood, attend school and grow closer. The tale turns tragic as Zhu is betrothed to another man, Liang becomes ill and dies, and Zhu throws herself into Liang’s grave. In closing, the lovers’ spirits emerge as butterflies.

The Butterfly Lovers, which premiered in 1959, is often used in figure skating routines, memorably for Chen Lu’s free skate performance at the 1998 Winter Olympics in Nagano, Japan, at which she became the first Chinese athlete to win a medal in figure skating.

Trinh Cong Son/arr. Jaakko Kuusisto
Circle of Unity 

The first of this concert’s two world premieres is Finnish composer Jaakko Kuusisto’s arrangement of Circle of Unity by Vietnamese composer, performer and artist Trinh Cong Son (1939-2001). Kuusisto’s arrangement, based on the version by Vietnamese musician Hô Quang Hiêu, is energetic and fast-paced, with effects including muted brass, strings sliding from one pitch to the next, shouting from the musicians, and a percussion part that imitates the sound of a high-frequency EDM-style snare.

Son, one of the great figures in 20th-century Vietnamese music and art, wrote more than 500 songs and poems, many relating to love and the hope for a peaceful Vietnam. Circle of Unity dates from 1968, in the midst of the Vietnam War, with lyrics outlining the dream of reconciliation between North and South Vietnam. In 1975, as the war was coming to an end, Son accepted an invitation to perform Circle of Unity on a radio broadcast from Saigon, urging all Vietnamese people to join hands and unite.

Wu Hua
In the Dark Night for Jing Hu and Orchestra 

For In the Dark Night by Chinese composer Wu Hua (1943-2020), the Minnesota Orchestra welcomes jing hu master Mr. Zhengang Xie and yue qin master Ms. Mei Hu, a husband-and-wife team who are the parents of the Orchestra’s Principal Bassoon Fei Xie. Wu’s composition, heard here in an orchestration by Ma Jun and Han Guang, has its origins in a famous melody from the Peking Opera and showcases the jing hu—a bowed instrument with two strings—as well as the yue qin, a four-stringed lute with a distinctive round, hollow wooden body.

In the Dark Night comes from a suite by Wu describing the ill-fated story of Xiang Yu, a rebel leader during the fall of the Qin Dynasty (221-206 B.C.), and his concubine Yuji. The music begins with a low-pitched flute solo and continues with a Chinese drum passage, over which the orchestra crescendos and stops, leading to the entrance of the jing hu and yue qin. Those two featured instruments play continuously in free-flowing melodies for the rest of the piece, through varying textures, tempos and meters until the final measures, marked fff with trills and tremolos abounding.

Kelly Tang
Sketches of Singapore 

Contemporary Singaporean composer Kelly Tang (b. 1961), who writes in genres ranging from classical and jazz to symphonic and popular music, composed the colorful Sketches of Singapore in 2008 on a commission from the Singapore Symphony Orchestra. The score bears the following note:

Sketches of Singapore utilizes the broad musical palette of the symphony orchestra to unlock expressive possibilities lying latent within four popular Singaporean melodies. The simple elegance of these tunes provides the ideal foundation upon which to weave elaborate textural layers, lively rhythmic elaborations, colorful tonal shading and flavorful harmonic tapestries. The development and transformation of fragments derived from these tunes generates fresh dramatic dimensions that unfold upon a symphonic canvas…The work begins with the triumphant energy of Stand Up for Singapore. Next, the folk tune Rasa Sayang is presented in the comic style of a scherzo. Cast in a passionate yet elegant orchestral glow, the deep Romantic essence of the third tune, Where I Belong, is fully unveiled. In the grand finale, the venerable Di Tanjong Katong is symphonically expanded to radiate all its innate glory.”

Gao Hong
Guangxi Impression, Concerto for Pipa and Orchestra 

In the second of this week’s two world premiere performances, both commissioned by the Minnesota Orchestra, the composer herself, Gao Hong, takes the stage as the soloist in her Guangxi Impression, Concerto for Pipa and Orchestra. The composer-soloist has provided the following comments on her work:

“Guangxi is a province in southern China that sports a rich diverse population that includes 48 counties with 12 different ethnic groups. This piece is in three movements: Dance of Tiaodan, Summer Cicadas and Celebrating the Harvest.

Dance of Tiaodan. “The first movement depicts Tiaodan people as they carry goods on their shoulders with bamboo sticks. The music describes the people as they work happily in the field. People one-by-one come from far away with the bamboo sticks on their shoulders, creating ‘biandan’ up and down movements which simulate dancing.

Summer Cicadas. “In Guangxi, the weather is very hot and the cicadas are very noisy. But in the Dong minority, the most famous song is inspired by the sounds of the cicadas. The music describes a hot summer day, with young men and women looking for lovers during work breaks in the field.

Celebrating the Harvest. “A plentiful harvest is cause to celebrate in Guangxi, and I depict this celebration with sounds of percussion bands and celebratory words near the movement’s end.”

Li Huanzhi
Spring Festival Overture

Spring Festival Overture is the most famous composition of Chinese composer Li Huanzhi (1919-2000)—music so beloved that it was among a small number of musical works launched into space in 2007 on China’s first lunar probe, Chang’e 1.

The overture is the first and best-known movement of Li’s four-part Spring Festival Suite, composed in 1955 and 1956. It depicts a scene in the Shanbei region of revelers celebrating the Lunar New Year, also known as the Spring Festival, and the music’s themes come from that region’s folk music. In the overture we hear sounds reminiscent of fireworks and parades, along with a gentler inner passage that is built on a traditional melody conveying greetings for the New Year as well as prayers for peace and good fortune.

Program notes by Carl Schroeder.