Vancouver Metropolitan Orchestra conductor Ken Hsieh was born in Edmonton as the son of Taiwanese immigrants, but he also has a deep love affair with Japan.
It originated when the UBC and Royal Conservatory of Music grad moved to the country for postgraduate studies in orchestral conducting at the Toho Gakuen School of Music and the Senzoku College of Music. Later on, Hsieh continued his studies in Vienna with Japanese composer Joji Yuasa. And every December, Hsieh returns to Japan to conduct Beethoven’s Symphony No. 9 in D Minor in Osaka.
“I do speak conversational Japanese and I read it,” Hsieh told the Georgia Straight in recent phone interview from Toronto, where he was conducting a concert as part of that city's TaiwanFest celebration. “But I wasn’t that good of a student [of Japanese] when I was in Japan. I was focusing more on music.”
On Saturday (September 2) as part of Vancouver's TaiwanFest, the maestro and the Vancouver Metropolitan Orchestra will perform a free concert at the Queen Elizabeth Theatre called Kanpai Japan! Roughly translated, it means "Toast Japan!"
It reflects the theme of this year’s festival, which highlights the long friendship between the two countries.
Hsieh said that of all the countries occupied by Japan in the first half of the 20th century, Taiwan is perhaps the only one where people have fond memories. Many elderly Taiwanese still speak very good Japanese. And the Japanese are credited with bringing western symphonic music and western watercolour painting to Taiwan.
“The people especially from the south of Taiwan really embraced the Japanese culture,” he noted.
Hsieh pointed out that Taiwan and Japan are both island countries, which can contribute to a sense of being isolated—so that is another thing they have in common.
At the Saturday concert, Hsieh is going to lead the orchestra in a performance of “Formosan Dance”. It was composed by a mostly forgotten Taiwanese conductor, Bunya Koh, who entered this to a musical competition on behalf of Japan at the 1936 Berlin Olympics.
Koh, who was also known by his Chinese name Jiang Wen-Ye, ended up winning honourable mention.
“I’m really happy that we’re able to showcase this piece,” Hsieh said. “I think it’s probably the premiere in Canada, if I’m not mistaken.”
The maestro said that when he first read the score for "Formosan Dance", he thought it was very fragmented. Hsieh suggested there's an element of Rachmaninoff along with the feel of music by Stravinsky, supplemented with a folk-dance element that comes straight out of Taiwan.
“There’s a lot of dissonance in there but it makes sense when you hear it and when you play it,” he said. “The whole fragment of the piece comes together.”
Hsieh described the Queen Elizabeth Theatre concert as a personal musical journey reflecting his experiences in Japan as a student and a conductor.
The first piece he learned to conduct as a student in Japan was Mozart’s Symphony No. 40, which will be part of the concert. And one of the final pieces will be Mendolsson’s Symphony No. 4, which was the last piece he learned in Japan.
He will also lead the orchestra in “Castle in the Sky” by Joe Hisaishi. It was part of the animated adventure film of the same name produced by Japan's world-famous Studio Ghibli animation house.
"I got to work with Joe recently,” Hsieh said. “He’s a very charismatic and very interesting fellow. He’s a conductor himself, too. So for me to see it live and then to conduct it now here in Canada actually means a lot to me.”
One of the highlights of the show will be a performance by Taiwanese piano prodigy Lin Hao-Wei.
“He’s only about 12 years old,” Hsieh said. “He’s playing the Mozart Concerto Rondo.”
VMO celebrates 15th anniversary
One week after the TaiwanFest concert, the Vancouver Metropolitan Orchestra will open its 15th season with a performance of Beethoven’s Symphony No. 9 at UBC’s Chan Centre for the Performing Arts.
Next Sunday’s (September 10) concert at the Chan Centre will be preceded with a preconcert talk at 1:30 p.m. before the show begins at 2 p.m.
To Hsieh, the choice of Beethoven’s final symphony made perfect sense because it has a history of bringing people together.
Most notably, this occurred when Leonard Bernstein chose this as the centrepiece of the Berlin Celebration Concert in 1989 to commemorate the fall of the Berlin Wall and the joining of east and west.
“I’m not going to change the world like Leonard Bernstein did,” Hsieh quipped, “but there is a brotherhood in this Beethoven’s 9th. All people come together.”
This deeper meaning imbues the Vancouver Metropolitan Orchestra’s 15th anniversary concert because it’s intended to bring together the many musicians and community members who've contributed to its success from day one.
“This is a perfect time for the orchestra to play Beethoven’s Symphony No. 9,” Hsieh said.More