Expect musical fireworks at Vancouver Symphony Orchestra's Pacific Rim Celebration

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For the Vancouver Symphony Orchestra, linking its two Pacific Rim Celebration concerts to the Lunar New Year is both good marketing and good programming. The first, titled Chinese New Year, hands the band to conductor Long Yu, who’ll lead soloists Jian Wang, Wen Wei, and Serena Wang in works for cello, violin, and piano, respectively. It’ll also offer local listeners a rare chance to explore the works of a number of Chinese composers—and see how they stack up against European icon Ludwig van Beethoven, whose Piano Concerto No. 1 is also on the program. Conversely, the second concert, Celebrate Korea, is given over to China’s immediate neighbour, with local resident Grace Jong Eun Lee starring in her own Song of Love for Kayagum and Orchestra, and Korean-American violinist Sarah Chang tackling Max Bruch’s flashy Violin Concerto No. 1.

Both programs look promising, even if Chang says that she’s two generations removed from traditional Korean culture. “I was born in the U.S. and brought up in the U.S., so the holidays that we celebrate follow the U.S. calendar,” she explains from an Oklahoma City hotel. “Now, since my grandfather and all my cousins and everybody are in Korea, they have a different Thanksgiving, they have a different New Year. I do recognize that they follow a different calendar—and what’s wonderful is that whenever I’m touring in Asia and it happens to be in January or February, that just means I get to celebrate two New Years. It’s fantastic.”

The effusive violinist also has fond memories of her younger brother’s two-year sojourn in Hong Kong. “Whenever I had any free time, I’d fly to Hong Kong—and it’s like a 15-hour flight! Even so, there were times when I would fly over and literally stay for one day, just to say hi and see how he was doing, and then fly right back to the next concert. But what was fun was that we’d celebrate our Christmas and New Year’s, and then a month later he’d go, ‘Oh, it’s Chinese New Year and I have a week off! Come on over.’ And it’s really amazing how all-out they go. The whole city’s in red, and that’s like a special colour for Chinese New Year or something.”

As for how the Bruch concerto relates to the lunar festivities, Chang admits that she’s not got much to offer. “No,” she says and dissolves into gales of laughter. “That’s too funny. Oh, my gosh. I am so sorry!”

One possible link, however, is that every time Chang plays the Violin Concerto No. 1 it’s a festive occasion—and a celebration of sorts.

“It has a really sentimental place in my heart,” she explains. “I actually played the Bruch for my Juilliard audition, when I was five years old. Essentially, it’s the piece that got me into the school of my dreams. But what’s funny is that then I put it aside for probably 10, 15 years. And then when I finally came back to it, I think I was in my 20s, and I totally fell in love with it.”

That love affair was consummated in 2009, when Chang recorded Bruch’s masterpiece, along with Johannes Brahms’s Violin Concerto in D, for the EMI label. In retrospect, the 33-year-old violinist recognizes that the work perfectly matches her own exuberant personality.

“It’s just so unapologetically romantic,” she says. “I mean, there are so many pieces out there where you constantly have to check yourself not to be overindulgent on-stage, but with the Bruch you sort of have free rein to go there, because it’s so lyrical, so melodic, and so beautiful. And it also throws you some incredibly technical challenges. You’re flying all over the place.”

In other words, expect fireworks—just like New Year’s in Seoul or Hong Kong.

The Vancouver Symphony Orchestra’s Pacific Rim Celebration takes place at the Orpheum on Saturday and Sunday (February 8 and 9).

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