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East Meets West when Mei-Ann Chen Returns to Pacific Symphony to conduct "Beethoven's Fifth" and the "Butterfly Lovers' Concerto," performed by Erhu Master George Gao

March 14, 2013

Culturally significant pieces of music with contrasting musical elements come together for an evening of divergent yet complementary music—when East meets West for Pacific Symphony’s next classical concert. With a familiarity comparable to Mona Lisa’s smile or the first line of Hamlet’s soliloquy, Beethoven’s prodigious “Fifth Symphony,” with its four most famous notes in the history of classical music (“da da da dum!”) gets a fresh take when led by returning guest conductor Mei-Ann Chen joins Pacific Symphony for the next classical concert. Rumored to be fate knocking at the door, the illustrious four-note motif is repeated in variations throughout the famous work, as the struggle between darkness and light escalates to a dramatic explosion of victory. Chen also leads the orchestra in two pieces from Chinese composers—He Zhanhao and Chen Gang’s “Butterfly Lovers’ Concerto,” a masterpiece with a story often referred to as the “Chinese Romeo and Juliet,” featuring China’s hottest erhu player, George Gao, and An-Lun Huang’s energetic “Saibei Dance,” from his Saibei Suite No. 2. Huang’s music has been described as a perfect synthesis of Western and Eastern elements that masterfully balance the two cultural influences.

The concert takes place Thursday through Saturday, April 4-6, at 8 p.m. in the Renée and Henry Segerstrom Concert Hall with a preview talk featuring Alan Chapman at 7 p.m. Tickets are $25-$112; for more information or to purchase tickets call (714) 755-5799 or visit www.PacificSymphony.org.

“We welcome back Mei-Ann Chen, who has become a real favorite with the musicians of Pacific Symphony and also with our audiences,” says Music Director Carl St.Clair. “She always has a warm and gracious podium presence, and she is also a fantastic music director of the Memphis Symphony. It is always a great honor for me as a fellow music director to invite someone who really invests in her community the way we have invested ourself in Orange County.”

Maestro Chen first delighted Symphony audiences in 2010, when she led Dvorák’s Symphony No. 9, causing Tim Mangan of the Orange County Register to write, “An authoritative figure on the podium, Chen knows what she wants and knows how to get it…. She allowed us to hear all the moving parts. Chen is an energetic as well as smoothly agile conductor. She never just beat time. She urged and probed and inspired from first to last.”

“The last thing a conductor or orchestra wants when performing a war-horse like Beethoven’s ‘Fifth’ is for the audience to think we’re playing it routinely,” says Chen. “To keep it fresh, you push the envelope a little bit and go down deep. It’s still a great piece of music when done right. It is my goal to help the musicians feel so inspired that it might sound like it was written just yesterday. It’s an interesting East meets West program, but I think the diversity of the program works beautifully.

“The other pieces I am bringing to Pacific Symphony this time are so—and I mean this in a good way—accessible to other people who are not familiar with Chinese music,” she continues. “When I did this for the first time with the Youth Philharmonic in Portland, I had one father come up to me and say, ‘I couldn’t help but be in tears at the end of the ‘Butterfly Lovers’ Concerto.’ I have a feeling some of this audience will react the same way.”

One of the world’s most innovative and respected erhu masters today, Gao showcases the evocative sound of the traditional Chinese instrument—a bowed fiddle with two strings stretched over a mahogany sound box covered with python skin. In the “Butterfly Lovers’ Concerto,” the solo erhu plays the role of the legend’s female protagonist, Zhu Yingtai, and the cello represents her lover, Liang Shanbo. In the tale, Zhu is a young girl who disguises herself as a boy in order to attend school, where she falls in love with one of her peers, Liang. They become friends but Liang is oblivious to Zhu’s true identity and emotions until he accompanies her on an 18-mile journey home and finds that her parents have arranged for her to marry a wealthy suitor. Heartbroken at his misfortune, Liang grows ill and dies. On the day of her wedding, Zhu flees the procession to pay her respect to Liang. A thunderbolt opens his grave, and she throws herself into it to join her beloved. Reunited, the spirits of Zhu and Liang magically transform into a pair of butterflies. “It’s the Chinese ‘Romeo and Juliet,’ says Chen. “It’s a love story and even though the characters can’t be together in life, they die together. The piece, written during the dark and difficult time of the Cultural Revolution in China, really takes you along with it. When this piece was allowed to be played after the Revolution, this melody became the iconic example of the culture.”

When Gao was first invited to perform the ‘Butterfly Lovers’ Concerto,’ he invented a new Chinese erhu—with a different register; no one has the same. It’s tuned to higher pitches, so it sounds more like the violin. It has this nostalgic feeling that you can’t quite duplicate with the violin.

“How do you play something that was written for four strings on only two strings?” says Chen. “That’s what George Gao has mastered.”

After winning the first prize in the Beijing National Erhu Competition, Gao launched an international performing career that has taken him on tours across the U.S., Canada, France, Germany, Denmark, Japan, Taiwan, Hong Kong and China. Billions of people around the world have watched him on CCTV, China’s most-watched television station. His erhu performance was prominently featured in the soundtrack for the science fiction television program “Earth: Final Conflict,” which was nominated for an Emmy Award for Outstanding Main Title Theme Music. As a composer, Gao has written music for award-winning films and documentaries, and has also written several hit songs in China where he has a rock band, Red Maple Leaf, and a pop group, Snowman.

Chen is currently in her third year as music director of the Memphis Symphony Orchestra and her second as music director of the Chicago Sinfonietta. In recognition of her high level of music making and its impact on these two communities, the League of American Orchestras honored her with the prestigious Helen M. Thompson Award in 2012. She was the recipient of the Taki Concordia Fellowship in 2007 and was the first woman to win the Malko Competition in 2005. In 2002, Chen was named music director of the Portland Youth Philharmonic in Oregon. During her five-year tenure with the orchestra, she led its sold-out debut in Carnegie Hall, received an ASCAP award for innovative programming and developed new and unique musicianship programs for the orchestra’s members. She was honored with a Sunburst Award from Young Audiences for her contribution to music education.

Pacific Symphony’s classical series performances are made possible by the Hal and Jeanette Segerstrom Family Foundation, with additional support from American Airlines, The Westin South Coast Plaza, KUSC and PBS SoCal.