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Fitting for Philadelphia Orchestra, 2021: A Lunar New Year concert, online

By ZHAO XU in New York | China Daily Global | Updated: 2021-02-10 12:07

A screenshot of Tan Dun speaking in the trailer from the Philadelphia Orchestra's China Lunar New Year show. [Photo provided to China Daily]

The music theater of the Philadelphia Orchestra remains the same, and the tunes – The Butterfly Lovers and Moon Reflected in Two Fountains, are just as familiar. But the more spartanly populated stage — with musicians sitting apart from one another, separated by what's widely known as the 6 feet of social distance — seems to have sent out additional echoes to every note dropped from the strings.

The video footage, on view at the orchestra's official website, gives fans a glimpse into its Chinese Lunar New Year concert, available for streaming through Sunday.

By turning online, the venerated orchestra continues a tradition and a friendship whose seed was first sown when the orchestra played in the People's Republic of China in 1973, at the request of President Richard Nixon, becoming the first US orchestra to do so.

In the context of the downward-spiraling relationship between the US and China, especially during the final year of the Trump administration, the concert also serves as a reminder of the transcendent power of art and music.

Prominently featured in the concert's programs are Nu Shu: The Secret Songs of Women by renowned Chinese American composer Tan Dun. (Nu Shu literally translates into letters of the women.)

Drawing inspiration from the cryptic language adopted and preserved solely by female members of a local society in Central China's Hunan province, the composition evokes history, tradition, sisterly bondage and the unique role played by women. The rendition is touted as a never-before-seen recording of the emotionally laden and culturally imbued piece.

"Time moves on. Seasons come and go. But we are here to celebrate the Lunar New Year, with our spirit, our love, nature, music and all of you," Tan said in a message to music lovers.

Yet with more than 460,000 people dead of COVID-19 in the US, and nearly 2.33 million having succumbed around the world, the celebration is somber, with the inclusion of Moon Reflected in Two Fountains, a sorrowful and soulful tune believed to have first been played by a blind itinerant musician in the first half of the 20th century. It's as much about personal suffering as about rising above it.

Romancing up his violin and wearing the same black mask as his fellow musicians, with the letter P for Philadelphia printed on it, Gil Shaham reinterpreted The Butterfly Lovers for the concert. Based on an ancient Chinese story of thwarted love, the piece, written for violin, is considered iconic and experimental for bringing the deepest and subtlest Chinese sensibilities to bear on the Western musical instrument.

"It is the perfect piece to celebrate the Chinese Lunar New Year — it celebrates ancient Chinese tradition and it symbolizes rebirth," Tan said.

Tickets to the concert are also available for purchase in China.

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