Inside SF Symphony’s Haute 2016 Chinese New Year Concert and Imperial Dinner

Doreen Ho, Nanci Nishimura, Mayor Ed Lee, Gorretti Lui and Pureum Jo
Doreen Ho, Nanci Nishimura, Mayor Ed Lee, Gorretti Lui and Pureum Jo

Photo Credit: Moanalani Jeffrey

Fun, creativity, innovation and sparkling energy. The 2016 Chinese New Year, the year of Fire Monkey, ushers in these attributes and they abounded at Davies Symphony Hall during the San Francisco Symphony’s 16th annual Chinese Lunar New Year Concert and Celebration last week.

A smiling, giant-sized Buddha perched outside Symphony Hall’s doors set the tone as attendees, many of them families with children donned in traditional Chinese dress, entered the lobby. Once inside, they were transported into a Chinese street fair, complete with lion dancers, acrobats, live music performed on traditional Chinese instruments, face painting, demonstrations of Chinese calligraphy, tea service and complimentary modern tasty twists on Chinese appetizers from Yank Sing, M.Y. China, Koh Samui and the Monkey and Eatz Catering . As befitting the New Year, mounds of the perennial favorite, fortune cookies, proffered advice. (Mine read: “Be generous and it will be returned in kind.” Sounds good to me!)

A colorful, traditional Chinese gate, mounted at the start of the grand staircase, invited guests to roam the floors and absorb the color, festivities, and the palpable sense of delight in the air. But the highpoint of the day occurred when San Francisco Symphony, conducted by Mei-Ann Chen, took the stage.

This was no ordinary concert or simply a symphonic take on traditional Chinese music. Instead, this was a balanced, moving, surprising and at times playful musical program. It opened with a 50 ft. dragon dramatically undulating through the aisles under black light. One of the musical highlights arrived in the first half with “Water Concerto,” by Tan Dun, the experimental composer best known outside the classical world for his Academy Award-winning score to the film, “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon.”

The piece asked the orchestra to wield their instruments in unusual ways. The brass section thumped the tuba and horns like percussive instruments. Wind players created squawks and whistles. As the concerto seamlessly intertwined melodic elements and dissonance, the soloist, percussionist Haruka Fujii, transformed large bowls of water into instruments, sometimes splashing a rhythm with her hands, sometimes half -immersing a gong or other metal musical devices into the water to create sounds reminiscent of nature’s more exotic reverberations.

The second half’s “Petals’ Burial (Dai Yu’s Aria),” sung by Pureum Jo, unveiled an emotional preview of “Dream of the Red Chamber,” by Bright Sheng. The opera debuts to the world in September, 2016 at the San Franisco Opera, which commissioned the work. The concert ended with a traditional Chinese singalong, extending best wishes for the New Year.

The following Imperial Dinner, held in the Zellerbach Rehearsal Hall upstairs, maintained the day’s creative spirit. Two live statues dressed as ancient Chinese warriors stood motionless as guests moved into an elegant setting anchored by illuminated wall-sized photo of ancient China. Cirque du Soleil-styled aerial performances and drawings for prizes, (everyone received a lucky number as they entered) highlighted the festivities as McCalls Catering served a six course menu designed around lucky foods: The winter melon soup embodied the blessing of “Family Unity:” The main course, seared sea bass with black bean, garlic, ginger, scallion sauce served atop sticky rice and baby bok choy, symbolized the wish of enjoying “surpluses year after year.”

Special guests included San Francisco Mayor Ed Lee. Deering Wine and La Marca Prosecco donated the beverages. Proceeds from the event, chaired by Patricia Lee-Hoffmann, benefited the San Francisco Orchestra’s community outreach and education programs.

Photos by Moanalani Jeffrey