NEW YORK—Classical music lovers may think they have heard it all, but the classical world of music has just opened up new boundaries with Shen Yun Symphony Orchestra’s debut at Carnegie Hall on Oct. 28.
Shen Yun compositions integrate the strengths of Western symphonic instruments with traditional Eastern instruments—creating a sound like no other. In one piece, the two-stringed erhu, along with the woodwinds and muted trumpet, evoke the elegance of the Ladies of the Manchu Court. In another, the trumpets take center stage in an inspiring rendition of Vivaldi’s Concerto for Two Trumpets in C Major, RV 537.
Shen Yun Performing Arts is a classical Chinese dance company based in New York. With a mission to revive 5,000 years of Chinese culture, it has three touring companies that perform on top stages around the world. Each company is accompanied by a complete orchestra.
The Carnegie performance featured over 90 musicians selected from those orchestras and three Shen Yun conductors—Keng-Wei Kuo, Antonia Joy Wilson, and Milen Nachev—took turns with the baton. The program also included masterful solos from Shen Yun’s singers, who perform using bel canto technique while singing Chinese texts. The lyrics and scores of these are all original Shen Yun pieces.
Kaspar Märtig (R, trumpet), Alexander Wilson (L, trumpet) and the Shen Yun Symphony Orchestra play Antonio Vivaldi's Concerto for Two Trumpets in C Major at Carnegie Hall on on Oct. 28, 2012, as part of the orchestra's international debut. (Dai Bing/NTD Television)
Soprano Pi-Ju Huang sings “What Is The Meaning Of Life?” — an original Shen Yun composition. The Taiwan-native has sung the lead role in operas including as “La Traviata,” “Madame Butterfly,” and “Don Giovanni.” (Dai Bing/NTD Television)
Hong Ming sings "The Song in My Heart" accompanied by Bulgarian-born conductor Milen Nachev and the Shen Yun Symphony Orchestra. The award-winning tenor performed for foreign dignitaries as a National First-Rank Performer in his homeland of China. (Dai Bing/NTD Television)
The Shen Yun Symphony Orchestra played three encores to an appreciative audience during their debut at New York’s Carnegie Hall on Oct. 28. (Dai Bing/NTD Television)
The concert on Sunday opened with The Star Spangled Banner, followed by one of Shen Yun’s eminent opening pieces, Creation.
With the grandeur of a Western symphony orchestra, the majestic brass section resonated throughout the hall, and the percussion set an air of mystery with its Chinese drums. Violins decrescendoed into a tremolo, suggesting that something magical was about to arrive.
Creation is based on an ancient legend that tells of heavenly beings bringing humanity its culture. The melodies are modeled loosely after court music (yayue) from the Tang dynasty (618-907), which is considered the zenith of China’s cultural history.
The Shen Yun Symphony Orchestra switched from a Chinese flavor to full Western symphonic sound with a flick of the baton. After the mystical Creation, the orchestra performed Antonio Vivaldi’s Concerto for Two Trumpets in C Major, RV 537.
Out of Vivaldi’s 500-odd concertos, this piece is the only one written for two trumpets, here played by Kaspar Märtig and Alexander Wilson.
Märtig is the former principal trumpet of the Dresden Philharmonic Orchestra, and a current member of the Shen Yun Orchestra.
Wilson was the first place winner of the International Trumpet Guild’s 2010 Orchestral Excerpts Competition. He holds a Master’s degree from Arizona State University, and is a member of the Shen Yun Orchestra.
The duo’s intonation was incredibly precise, considering the difficulty of the fast passages and the high range of the notes. Their tone remained bright and weightless throughout the movements.
The orchestra then returned to several former Shen Yun pieces, such as Khata for the Gods. This song opens with a duet for the clarinet and oboe, and whisks listeners to the vast blue sky of the Himalayas. The wind instruments emitted new sounds to convey the unique feeling of Tibetan tunes, while the trombone used an exotic sliding slur to do a stunning imitation of the Tibetan long horn.
The opening of the song set the scene for a ceremony where Tibetans expressed gratitude toward Buddha for a bountiful harvest. It was followed by a series of sixteenth notes from the strings. The strings’ clean, even notes built toward a climax that illustrated the pattering of feet as people gathered for the ceremony.
The Shen Yun Symphony Orchestra also performed an elegant piece to accompany the dance piece entitled, Ladies of the Manchu Court. The royal ladies walk daintily on shoes with raised platforms at the center rather than the heel— a trademark of the fashion during the period of the Manchu rule (1644–1911).
The noblewomen’s elegance was evoked through a melody captured by a duet of an erhu, a two-stringed instrument, and a muted trumpet.
The erhu, also known as the Chinese violin, has a special capacity to express profound emotions and ideas. No wonder it was selected to capture the exclusive grace of the Manchu court.
Just when the audience was captivated by the sound of the unlikely duet, the violins took over and imitated the erhu’s feeling. While preserving all the richness of traditional violin tones, the Shen Yun Symphony Orchestra violinists added Chinese-style slides on the fingerboard, taking the violin to new musical boundaries.
It was truly a performance like no other, and one that no music lover should have missed.
In addition to orchestral performances, the program also included solos from Shen Yun’s singers, who perform using bel canto technique while singing Chinese texts.
All the texts and scores are from original Shen Yun pieces. One of the singers performing was Haolan Geng, who sang for the Guangdong Provincial Opera, winning the gold medal at the first music competition of the Guangdong Festival of Arts.
Geng had remarkable stage presence. Her passionate vibrato moved the audience, and corresponded with the philosophical tone of the text.
The Carnegie Hall performance was co-conducted by all three Shen Yun Orchestra conductors— Keng-Wei Kuo, Antonia Joy Wilson, and Milen Nachev.
Kuo has expertise in both Western and Chinese music. He holds a bachelor’s degree in Chinese flute, or dizi, and a master’s degree in conducting. He was the founding conductor of Texas’s Taiwan Formosa Chamber Ensemble.
Wilson pursued graduate studies in orchestral conducting at Yale University, and holds a doctoral degree in orchestral conducting from the University of Colorado at Boulder. Wilson was the youngest woman to conduct a major American orchestra. She won first prize at the 1996 International Classical Music Conducting Competition in Mexico.
Nachev was formerly chief conductor and artistic director of several major orchestras in Eastern Europe. He is a graduate of the St. Petersburg Conservatory in Russia.
The Concertmaster was Yo-yo Fann, who earned his masters from the Juilliard School. He is the winner of multiple violin competitions, including the Manhattan School of Music Preparatory Division Concerto Competition for violin and Best Sonata Interpretation at Germany’s Kulturstiftung Hohenlohe International Violin Competition.
The performance ended with a roaring applause that took a long time to fade. Since the performance was co-conducted by three conductors, the audience received a special surprise of three encores.
The encores were excerpts from previous Shen Yun musical favorites. It left the audience anticipating Shen Yun’s 2013 tour, when it will be returning to the Lincoln Center in April.