Garrison Theater was packed for the Xiamen Philharmonic Orchestra’s exclusive appearance, and not a single person walked out when, in the final movement of The Echoes of Hakka Earth Buildings, the fire alarm went off. The lights came up, the alarm flashed and blared and the orchestra forged ahead, confident in their enthralled audience. It was a dramatic end to more than two hours of stunning music. The true stars of the evening were, quite appropriately for an event at Scripps, three very impressive women. Huang Bin’s performance in The Butterfly Lovers demonstrated how beautifully a skilled violinist can evoke the emotion of the human voice. Zhang Hongyan strode onstage for The Little Sisters on the Grass Land in a sweeping white gown, a rock star haircut and a pipa—a traditional Chinese lute-like instrument in hand. Zhang drew a fantastic range of dynamic and tone from her instrument with amazingly speedy fingers, demonstrating why she is often referred to as “the pipa queen.”
The most impressive performance, however, was Maestra Zheng Xiaoying. Her long career in music has been characterized by innovations, such as the blend of the traditional pipa with a Western orchestra. The first prominent woman conductor in China, Zheng began her work after the Cultural Revolution, with prestigious musical training and a strong personal philosophy: “Intent on serving the needs of society, committed to realizing one’s own capability.”She has been Principal Conductor of China Central Opera Theater, founder and director of the first Chinese all-women’s orchestra and the only non-state owned orchestra, and a nominee for the Nobel Peace Prize. Her goal is to introduce “the abstract and refined arts to more and more people,” and she has achieved this through her management of multiple orchestras, her commitment to musical education and her multiple tours to Europe, Australia and the United States.
Zheng and her orchestra presented both traditional and modern compositions. They demonstrated their commitment to sharing music by inviting the Claremont Concert Choir to join them in the final piece. To hear such musicianship and see such energy and dedication was a unique experience, and I, for one, hope the Xiamen Philharmonic will be back.