The age of the internet and globalization has delivered on many of its early promises. The exchange of information and materials to and from destinations worldwide is more open and common than could have ever been predicted. However, the promise of true cultural exchange leading to greater understanding has proven to be a more challenging and less measurable goal. For instance, how does one quantify the significance of veteran composer Zhao Jiping leading the Guangdong National Orchestra on its U.S. debut performing a work of cultural fusion know as The Silk Road Melody. Performing in Seattle on September 13, Mr. Zhao will bring together what is the result of over two years preparation—seven movements written by seven composers performed by 70 musicians in Seattle’s Benaroya Hall.
Conceived in 2013 and first performed in 2015, The Silk Road Melody is a musical epic named for the network of trade routes that connected the West and East from China to the Mediterranean Sea. It tells the story of Chinese sailors who make a pioneer journey across the ocean and establish the exchange of goods and culture between China and foreign lands. In the spirit of its namesake, composer Zhao Jiping, known for writing the scores to films including Raise the Red Lantern, To Live, and Farewell My Concubine, hopes the show will further cultural connection between East and West.
“There was once a story in China called ‘Journey to the West.’ It’s about a person called Xuanzang traveling all the way to Europe. This story was once called a very great opportunity to spread the culture of China to the Western world. In some ways, The Silk Road Melody is similar,” Zhao said.
The seven movements, each written by a different composer, evoke different feelings of whimsy and whist that one might experience on a long adventure. Starting on a movement called “Setting Out,” progressing to, “A Foreign Land,” and eventually moving into, “Nostalgia,” it fell on Zhao to blend the individual pieces into a single cohesive musical performance that would capture the essence of Southern China. “We even went to small fishing villages to better understand the feeling of Guangdong’s music and lifestyle,” Zhao said.
After undergoing several revisions, the music was finalized in September 2015 where it was performed on national tour in China for a year. However, the upcoming shows in San Francisco and Seattle will be The Silk Road Melody’s international debut. “I think the Guangdong National Orchestra is not very familiar for the Americans. It is very different from the Western symphony. I think the music and sounds of each instrument will be very fresh and identifiable for American audiences,” Zhao said. “I need to use the traditional Chinese instruments and their special characteristics and sounds to express the feeling of the ocean and the meaning of cultural communication and Chinese cultures. For example, the traditional Chinese drum is a kind of percussion. It has a very loud sound and I need to use this characteristic, however I also need to make sure that the sound does not affect the others.”
Founded in 1949, the Guangdong National Orchestra consists of 70 musicians and is considered one of China’s greatest orchestras. Despite its decades of establishment, when asked about his experience of working with the musicians, Zhao made note of their relative youth. “Although a large portion of the orchestra is very young, they work very hard. Despite all the time and energy we put into it, the young musicians can still absorb it all,” Zhao said. “They don’t complain. They still feel very excited. I would say they are very lovely and energetic.”
The energy will have to continue for a few more weeks as according to Zhao: “We have other programs to present to American audiences, but we are mainly focusing on rehearsing right now.”
The Guangdong National Orchestra will perform at Benaroya Hall on September 12 and 13 at 7:30 p.m. both days. The Silk Road Melody will only be performed on September 13, while the show on September 12 will feature a more traditional collection of China’s most famous musical masterpieces under the title “Autumn Melody” and scheduled to coincide with the Chinese Moon Festival. Tickets are available for purchase at www.seattlesymphony.org.
On August 31 from 12:00 p.m. to 1:30 pm, the Seattle Parks and Recreation Department and the China Arts and Entertainment Group, affiliated with China’s Ministry of Culture, will host a special concert at Hing Hay Park in the International District. The performance will feature local Seattle Busker musicians and Chinese pipa virtuoso, Gu Shengying, of the Guangdong National Orchestra of China.