SF Symphony’s Lunar New Year celebrates community, emphasizes care

Photo of SF Symphony conductor Yue Bao
SF Symphony/Courtesy

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The line for Davies Symphony Hall snaked around the block, dotted with flashes of red clothing and children sitting atop their parents’ shoulders. A general air of excitement fluttered between concertgoers, all early waiting to be let into the hall for the San Francisco Symphony’s Lunar New Year: Year of the Tiger performance. 

Each of the program’s seven pieces ran quite short, which kept the concert engaging and fast-paced — especially for the younger audience members. This brevity left no room for audience fidgeting or murmuring, and the air of wonder and excitement remained strong through the lively show. 

Showcasing a range of orchestral pieces from Asian composers — specifically hailing from China, Korea and Taiwan — the night featured traditional Chinese-based folk sounds paired with poignant string techniques to replicate non-Western musical styles. A bit more diversity would have been appreciated in the program, especially since Symphony Board Member Patricia Lee-Hoffmann noted in the night’s opening message that Lunar New Year is celebrated around the world. 

Under the direction of Yue Bao, the orchestra moved through an incredibly well-balanced celebration of Asian music and culture. A screen that projected moving, virtual images of lanterns, tigers and rolling waves set the backdrop for the orchestra. The images provided a light-hearted addition to the music, but at times, they proved distracting and slightly gimmicky. 

The screen served a worthy purpose in its video segments that split up the program. Special celebrity guests all shared fond memories of their Lunar New Year traditions, including famed author Amy Tan, Vice President Kamala Harris, comedian and actor Ken Jeong, physician Tran Ho, director Jon M. Chu and author Chanel Miller. 

In addition to diversifying the symphony’s typical Western repertoire, the concert hall also captured a less sterile and proper sentiment. Such an achievement came to fruition because the program not only celebrated music but also culture and community. 

Spring emanated from the stage, as light violin pizzicato plucking laid the foundation for an airy oboe solo to float out to the audience in the opening song “Spring Festival Overture” by Huan-zhi Li. The swelling of strings grew reminiscent of wind rolling over a lush countryside, perhaps with a few flowers here and there flitting in the gusts. 

Violin soloist Bomsori delivered one of the most holistically-intentional performances to grace the hall’s stage in some seasons. Her utilization of the Chinese slide technique drew out a sound so similar to a traditional erhu instrument that it took the audience both by surprise and wonder. Paired with the rolling scales of the harp, Bomsori’s melodies captivated the entire hall, all enraptured in the romantic sound. Bomsori moved with elegance and energy, bending down before moving in a crescent moon shape towards Bao’s conducting with each grand crescendo. 

A fan favorite came through with “The Eternal Vow,” a piece from Tan Dun’s composition on “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon.” Amos Yang, the assistant principal cellist, took on the impressive challenge of the song’s featured solo. The deep, woody sound of the cello simply soared out from Yang’s bow. His mastery of the song’s poetic passages evoked such strained tenderness, all held in the taut tension of his playing. 

Toward the end of the program, another video segment shared the personal and impacting story from Dr. Ho, who spoke of a hate crime her elderly family member survived. Jeong, Dr. Ho’s partner, informed the audience of the five bystander intervention tactics one can employ if witnessing a hate crime, and encouraged the audience to donate to mutual aid funds working toward ending the hate towards Asian American Pacific Islander communities. 

As patrons left Davies, whistles were handed out to who Lee-Hoffman called “seasoned” audience members, which were also utilized as percussive instruments in the final piece, “Train Toccata” by Liu Yuan. The grand orchestral song turned great fear and vulnerability into collective strength, with the fervent whistles symbolizing protection. 

The Lunar New Year performance’s program, paired with the higher-spirited crowd, made for a true honoring of the richness of Asian cultures and the resilience of the communities who came together for this special celebration.

Contact Francesca Hodges at [email protected]. Tweet her at @fh0dges.