This year’s concert included pre- and post-show show taiko drumming and dance performances, music from “Slumdog Millionaire” and “South Pacific” and a world premiere by Ye Yanchen.
Half symphonic spectacle, half indoor street fair, Seattle Symphony’s fun-filled Celebrate Asia event filled the lobby and auditorium of Benaroya Hall on Sunday afternoon with the sounds and colors of Asian music and culture. The seventh annual installment’s decidedly theatrical and cinematic tinge, which may have inspired some of the colorful dress worn by Asian attendees, only increased the celebration’s allure for the sizable audience that filled the hall with smiles and cheers.
Guest conductor Carolyn Kuan’s biggest challenge was to present music that would not be eclipsed by the sensational drumming of CHIKIRI and The School of TAIKO that vibrated people and the lobby in equal measure as attendees exited the auditorium. She succeeded admirably in the second half of the concert. British composer/conductor Matt Dunkley’s arrangement of A.R. Rahman’s Oscar-winning music from “Slumdog Millionaire” began with a lovely, inspired opening that skillfully maintained the epic grandeur of the best Hollywood-inspired film scores. Progressing from the grace of “Latika’s Theme” to the spirited and engaging “Escape,” its every cymbal clash and colorful effect added to its impact.
Equally successful were two movements from Tan Dan’s “Crouching Tiger” Cello Concerto. A reworking of Tan’s marvelous Oscar and Grammy-winning score, the selections showcased the amplified cello of SSO assistant principal Meeka Quan DiLorenzo. At first layering her graceful and oft-wistful sounds over the accelerating drive of bongos, the East-meets-West music grew eerie and mysterious before ending with a battery of percussion whose excitement quotient more than held its own against the ensuing taiko onslaught.
The major triumph of the afternoon, however, was the world premiere of 22-year-old Ye Yanchen’s seven-minute overture, “Xizi.” Winner of the Celebrate Asia Competition — underwritten by the guiding forces of the annual event, Yoshi and Naomi Minegishi — the work takes its name from the marginally respected actors who performed in Chinese opera during the Ming and Qing dynasties.
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Despite an underpowered solo from assistant concertmaster Cordula Merks, the music’s irresistible forward momentum, humorous trombone interjections and huge outpouring of clattering energy from a small Peking gong and cymbals left me eager to hear what Ye can do in longer pieces. The preperformance interview between Kuan and Ye, in which the conductor confessed that her “age-14-level” Chinese left her floundering to understand his words, only added to the music’s delight.
Far less successful was the concert’s opening half. Kuan presented Rodgers & Hammerstein’s Overture to ‘South Pacific’ as though the heart-seizing emotions of “Bali Ha’i” and “Some Enchanted Evening” were not even worth the cost of a subway ride to Broadway. Tuba blats were monotonous, and the presentation so metronomic that it smacked of circus music. The sense of grace that Mary Martin, Ezio Pinza and Juanita Hall brought to this wonderful music was lost.
Equally disappointing was the U.S. premiere of celebrated Japanese film composer Yugo Kanno’s “Revive” Concerto for Koto and Shakuhachi. Kanno’s commission for Seattle Symphony and the Japan Philharmonic Orchestra, arranged and supported by Yoshi Minegishi, is a response to the earthquake and tsunami that shook Japan on March 11, 2011.
Despite the sincere contributions of the estimable Chiaki Endo on koto and Dozan Fujiwara on shakuhachi, who graced the auditorium with solo contributions following the concerto, the music’s huge battery of cymbals, tubular bells, glockenspiel, gong, wind chimes, sleigh bells, handclappers, drums and more seemed gratuitous and without substance. Nor could it compensate for a central “Pray” movement, in which soppy writing reduced sincerity to greeting-card sentimentality. The only thing more dismaying was the eardrum-searing MP3 soundtrack to the afternoon’s post-concert Bollywood dance party. Nonetheless, judging from the high energy level of patrons exiting the hall, virtually everyone left eager for the next installment of Celebrate Asia.