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Building bridges: East and West converge in Orange County, as Pacific Symphony reaches out to its Chinese and Chinese-American neighbors, thanks to New California Arts Fund
Orange County, Calif. — November 11, 2015
Pacific Symphony has been ahead of the multicultural curve for years. Through many different vehicles—The American Composers Festivals, Music Unwound, guest performers, commissioned works—the Symphony is at the center of a seismic shift regarding what people listen to and who is listening. Like orchestras throughout the country, the Symphony sees cross-cultural dialog as a critical, essential part of how it serves its various communities. These bridge-building efforts have been in place at least since 2004’s “Tradewinds from China” American Composers Festival. Now, however, these efforts have intensified. As a recipient of a $1.6 million New California Arts Fund grant from The James Irvine Foundation, specifically for expanding and diversifying its core listenership, the Symphony has been working behind the scenes to build stronger links with Orange County’s Chinese and Chinese-American communities. Some (but not all) of these efforts have been directed at the guest artists and repertoire being brought to the stage.
Coming up on Nov. 12-14, international sensation, Dan Zhu, tackles Bruch’s Violin Concerto on a program that also includes Li Huanzhi’s Spring Festival Overture, all led by Chinese-born En Shao. Other performances during the 2015-16 season include pianist Conrad Tao playing Prokofiev’s Piano Concerto No. 3, Dec. 3-5, and on Jan. 7-9, 2016, violinist Cho-Liang Lin performs and conducts Mozart and Wagner. Yo-Yo Ma has appeared as a guest artist as recently as May 2015, and this past summer, pianist Rueibin Chen made a spectacular appearance with the Symphony, performing Beethoven’s ‘Emperor” Concerto. It is all an intentional effort to build rich relationships between East and West.
The Symphony’s composer-in-residence, Narong Prangcharoen, born and raised in Thailand, is a good example of how composers have long turned to different cultures in order to expand their musical vocabulary. His recent commissioned piece, “Beyond Land and Ocean” was considered an anthem for Orange County. And cultural synthesis has gone into overdrive now that we have the Internet—a tool that takes us anywhere in the world instantly. This has had a major impact on American symphonies; not just musically, but socially. At Pacific Symphony, Alison Levinson, director of community arts participation, explains that the Irvine grant is enabling the organization to operate at a much wider and deeper level within the region.
“Something we’ve learned is that it’s not just about doing a one-time festival or concert,” she says. “It’s partnering with a community to figure out how we can work together to build lasting relationships and engage our community. Orange County is becoming increasingly multicultural and diverse. As Orange County’s orchestra, we need to be in touch with the many communities that make up the county and work together with these communities to determine how we can be more relevant to changing demographics and the changing landscape of our audiences.”
The Symphony has been partnering with Irvine Chinese School, considered a hub of cultural activity for Chinese and Chinese-Americans. Levinson says: “We talked to parents and worked closely with the school’s leadership to develop a program that hones in on the value of multigenerational experiences and supports active music-making among people of all ages.” The program, called “Strings for Generations,” provides an environment where family members can experience playing music together. Parents who don’t play a string instrument play percussion and rhythm instruments alongside their children.
“Parents have told us that they are gaining more empathy for their children and better understanding of what it’s like to learn to play an instrument. We’ve seen that being able to practice, perform and share the joys and struggles of music together is bringing parents and their children together in a different way than it has before.”
Symphony Board member Charlie Zhang, the founding visionary of Pick Up Stix restaurants, is a driving force behind a range of new initiatives that are aiming to connect the Symphony with the Asian community. Zhang explains his impetus: “I liked music when I was young. I played clarinet nearly at a professional level. I had a student visa to come to the States, but for various reasons I was not able to continue music school.” Zhang went into a different field, working in the restaurant business, starting as a busboy and working his way up to owner of multiple restaurants. “It’s been a great run. So now, I fully realize I’m not going to be a musician, but I can contribute. That’s the passion and history, for me. And the joy. That’s kind of the whole idea—I can play behind the scenes.
“I’m so proud to be an American—I’ve been a citizen for 27 years—but on the surface, the way I talk and walk, people still look at me as Chinese,” Zhang says, “so I have a better advantage to reach the Chinese community. A lot of people know me and I know them. I can bring people together, to reach out to successful people and organizations, because I’ve been here so long.”
One way Zhang is playing behind the scenes: he’s busy planning a concert tour of China for Pacific Symphony Youth Orchestra. “Just think of the impact on their young lives,” he says, “to go to the Great Wall, the Forbidden City. And China has a huge music culture. We scheduled the tour for 2016, and my wife and I decided to make a contribution dedicated to scholarships to support people and families unable to go. That’s really lifting the momentum, pushing it over the hill. We selected the best of the best, state of the art theaters and concert halls to let the kids play. It’s not cheap, but we want to go there. For the kids, it will be a once-in-a-lifetime experience.”
Luisa Cariaga, director of institutional giving, points out that the Symphony’s initiative is not just about one community but a new way of interacting with many different communities.
“It’s a capacity-building grant,” says Cariaga. “We’re learning how to reach out to this community in ways we can apply to other communities. This is a pilot program to develop relationships with partners like the Bowers Museum and the Irvine Chinese School, to develop and refine our volunteer management program, and to increase engagement through core
Chinese Initiative programming and donor support. We chose the Chinese-American community because we felt it wasn’t well represented among our constituents, and it has turned into an amazing initiative that’s reached out into new communities in ways we didn’t anticipate. It’s become a highly successful partnership.”
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