A New Symphonic Tradition by Shen Yun Begins Its Season

September 28, 2013 3:57 am Last Updated: December 22, 2013 1:27 am

WASHINGTON—A symphony orchestra that is technically rooted in the Western tradition while reaching back into ancient Chinese music and thought made its season debut at the Kennedy Center Concert Hall on Sept. 27.

The Shen Yun Symphony Orchestra consists of over 100 instrumentalists, four conductors, and a clutch of bel canto singers. They performed four pieces from the 19th and 20th century Western canon, and nearly a dozen of their own original compositions, receiving four encores and a 10-minute standing ovation from the crowd.

The company behind the orchestra, Shen Yun Performing Arts, is better known for its classical Chinese dance performances.

When Shen Yun comes to the Kennedy Center, it often performs for a whole week or more, and has a string of sold-out shows. The Shen Yun Symphony Orchestra, which was debuted in New York’s Carnegie Hall last year, has embarked on a seven-city tour this year. It is the company’s first seasonal foray into a purely musical presentation of their artistic ideas, unaccompanied by the dance and vivid digital imagery that they are known for.

Dong Xiang, the executive director of the Falun Dafa Association of D.C., the concert’s local presenter in Washington D.C., said, “It went very well,” adding that usually staid Washingtonians were visibly excited with the music.

The evening started with the “Star Spangled Banner,” before launching into “Sewing the Flowers of Heaven,” a work composed by Susan Liu with Shen Yun. It was conducted by Leif Erikson Sundstrup, an award-winning, Australian conductor. The piece, which tells the story of celestial maidens preparing a tapestry of brilliant flowers to give to humankind, revels in the textures of the erhu and the pipa, two Chinese string instruments played with a bow and plucked respectively.

Other original compositions in the first half of the performance included “The Emperor Journeys to the Moon,” a story from the great Tang Dynasty, which tells of the vivid dream of Emperor Xuanzong, and “Dancing for the Divine,” an energetic piece of music inspired by the culture of Tibet.

In combining the music of different cultures’ traditions, the orchestra has essentially incorporated Chinese instruments into the Western symphonic format: there is no tradition of symphony orchestra in China, and multiple instruments are typically only played together in relatively small and contained ensembles, for example while accompanying an opera. Chinese music also does not contain such vast and complex musical structures as the arrangements of the Western classical tradition.

In the pieces from the West—Tchaikovksy’s Polonaise, Beethoven’s Egmont Overture, two trumpet pieces by the American composer Leroy Anderson, and a dual flute number by Anton Bernhard Fürstenau—no Chinese instruments were to be heard.

All of those performances received an enthusiastic welcome from the crowd, in particular the rollicking strains of the Tchaikovsky, which was composed for a ballroom dance, and the declarative trumpets of the Beethoven, which inspired hearty applause.

George E. Mattingly, a consultant and engineer of fluid mechanics based in Washington, said the performances were “very dynamic and very full. A very enjoyable sound.” He was impressed with the violins, “the symphony of bows.” His wife, Catherine Mattingly, concurred. “Invigorating,” she remarked. Mr. Mattingly also concurred.

Silvestre Acedillo, a graphic designer in Centerville, Virginia, said it was impressive how the Shen Yun Symphony Orchestra was able to combine classical Western and traditional Chinese instruments together and called the blend of musical traditions amazing.

“I was excited to listen to it,” he said.

Other audience members interviewed by Epoch Times said that their impression of the performance was that it was “moving” or “very moving.”

Dong Xiang, the local presenter, is enthusiastic about the prospects for further performances by the orchestra in Washington after this first night. “The number one channel of marketing is through friends,” he said. “We gained a lot of friends tonight.”

Shen Yun Symphony Orchestra is on a seven-city tour with performances in Washington, D.C., New York, Boston, Houston, Dallas, Los Angeles, and San Francisco, from Sept. 27-Oct. 22. For more information, visit Symphony.Shenyun.com.