For the first time in 21 years, the San Francisco Symphony‘s annual Lunar New Year concert will not be held in front of an audience at Davies Symphony Hall. Instead, the program, which will be hosted by actor-director Joan Chen and consist of SF Symphony musicians, guests playing traditional Chinese instruments and guest conductor Ming Luke, will stream for free on the symphony’s new subscriber-based digital media platform, SFSymphony+. The program will be offered free of charge beginning on Saturday, however, and will also air on NBC Bay Area on the same day and be rebroadcast several times.
“Chinese New Year Virtual Celebration: Year of the Ox” will join other free content on the streaming service like new chamber performances, 2020 episodes of the symphony’s digital series CURRENTS, as well as last year’s virtual “Deck the Halls,” “Dia de los Muertos” and “Throughline” concerts.
The Lunar New Year program will combine symphonic music with traditional Chinese folk and works by Asian composers. It focuses on themes that coordinate with the Year of the Ox: prosperity, unity and growth. Works featured include Chen Yi’s “Romance of Hsiao” and “Ch’in” from Romance and Dance, Zhou Long’s Chinese Folk Songs, Julian Yu’s “Flower Riddle” and “Dry Boat Dance” from Chinese Folk Song Suite, Yao-Xing Chen’s “Gallop of Warhorses,” and Yuan-Kai Bao’s “Little Cabbage” from Chinese Sights and Sounds.
Guests Tao Shi (erhu), Wenying Wu (yangqin) and Samantha Cho (piano) join Luke, who is conducting SF Symphony musicians for the first time.
“The ox, in the lunar calendar, is the year of strength; of power, ” said Luke, the music director of the Merced Symphony and Berkeley Community Chorus and Orchestra, principal conductor of the Nashville Ballet, associate conductor for the Berkeley Symphony and principal guest conductor for the San Francisco Ballet. “So the repertoire is exciting and powerful, but it’s also [based on] that idea that this is the year, potentially, we can get back to live performances. … By the end of 2021 we might be back to some semblance of normalcy, hopefully.”
Luke said that he was asked to conduct several pieces of the program (the others are chamber pieces that did not call for a conductor) because the SF Symphony wanted to keep the artists local to the Bay Area due to COVID precautions.
“It was fantastic getting to work with [SF Symphony musicians] because obviously, everybody’s just really excited to be working—even if there’s no audience—but to be able to do things for the community,” he said. “Also, it was it was really nice to connect to these musicians that I hadn’t really known before.”
The program was selected in part by the soloists, but also by COVID restrictions of how many musicians could share a stage.
One of the highlights of the concert is sure to be “Gallop of Warhorses,” which Luke called both energetic and so virtuosic. SF Symphony violinist Yun Chu, who is Chinese, said it’s a tune he would often hear on the radio and TV when he was growing up in Shanghai.
“It’s a good spirit. We’re in the middle of the pandemic, and we need to have that spirit to keep us fighting this virus,” Chu said, adding that viewers should pay attention to how the two-stringed erhu is paired with classical four-string instruments in the performance.
“I hope everybody will enjoy it like we do while we’re playing this piece,” he said.
Violinist In Sun Jang grew up in South Korea and said she was not familiar with the Chinese folk songs on which she played within a string quartet, “Driving the Mule Team” and “When Will the Acacia Bloom?”
“These two songs are short and sweet, and we felt like we were in an actual Chinese garden, because the backdrop was gorgeous,” she said. “There was a wall of Chinese lanterns and bamboo trees were all around us and the projections—I think might be the acacia tree actually blowing in the wind for the backdrop. It was so real.”
The visual aesthetics of the filmed performances are a huge part of the streamed program, and an element San Francisco Symphony has prioritized for its completely streamed 2020-21 season. For the Lunar New Year program, that included both the location (the organization has been a filming studio rather than playing on-stage) and design elements; Luke said viewers can expect lots of vibrant red, golds and bamboo.
The camera work and visual production is top-notch and adds more life to the music, he said, and gives the perception that you’re in the room with the musicians.
“On top of that, there’s the music itself,” he said. “When you’re using Chinese folk songs, the erhu, the Chinese dulcimer [yangqin]; that type of repertoire … creates a wonderful atmosphere. To be surrounded in that environment is great.”
SFSymphony+ launched on Feb. 4 with a new filming of its exploratory SoundBox series and will continue to feature new content through the conclusion of the season on Aug. 31. The entire season costs $120, and individual programs are $15. The on-demand service is available online as well as smart TVs and streaming devices, smartphones, and tablets.
The Lunar New Year program will be free to everyone without a membership, which Yun Chu said is great because it’s an annual point of pride for SF Symphony musicians. The organization was among the first in the U.S. to host such a show annually.
In Sun Jang compared the streaming season to a temporary digital music hall.
“We are working hard to present a good variety of programs,” she said. “It’s as good as we could hope for now. It’s definitely a big disappointment that we can’t play live concerts or even really see other colleagues at this moment, but we all understand how important this is.”
Luke said that being able to perform together in small groups is a step in the right direction and the highlight of the entire experience for the conductor. He remembers how, while rehearsing and then performing “Little Cabbage” (“Xiao Bai Cai” in Chinese), the musicians had to adjust and find a rhythm with each other.
“There’s this nonverbal communication that goes on when we just connect with each other and start playing. You breathe together, phrase together, make music together,” he said. “I realized I hadn’t worked with musicians together like that in months. Normally, most of us give 100 concerts a year. That’s not something we take for granted, but it’s a more common experience. Those moments had heightened experience and importance for me.”
Follow editor Roman Gokhman at Twitter.com/RomiTheWriter.