​Philharmonia Northwest celebrates Taiwanese music

Julia Tai

On Saturday afternoon at Benaroya Hall, Philharmonia Northwest presents perhaps its most far-reaching and ambitious concert yet: a program of music by Taiwanese composers with soloists and singers from Taiwan, Vancouver B.C. and California joining the members of Philharmonia Northwest for the performance.

Last season, the orchestra embarked on a mission of learning about different cultures through their music; concerts featuring work by Finnish, Mexican and Japanese composers proved popular with audiences and heritage institutions alike. “It’s really fun,” says the orchestra’s music director, Julia Tai. “Explaining different cultures in music, you feel you get to know the people.”

Tai is Taiwanese herself (she came to Seattle after high school), but the impetus for Saturday’s concert came from Angelo Rondello of the Seattle Music Exchange Project, a fairly new organization that aims to connect cultures through exchanges in the arts. Rondello, a pianist, has extensive connections with musicians outside Seattle and has helped considerably with both organizing and fundraising for this concert. This has been a major undertaking for a community orchestra to put together, with support from 4Culture and the Ministry of Culture in Taiwan.

The program includes Tyzen Hsiao’s “Ilha Formosa, a Requiem for Formosa’s Martyrs;” Gordon Chin’s Triple Concerto for violin, cello and piano; and part of Shui-Long Ma’s ‘Legend of Taiwan—Overture of Chivalrous Liao Tian-Ding,” the story of Taiwan’s Robin Hood.

“The three compositions all have very different styles,” Tai says. “The Requiem uses romantic language. Tyzen Hsiao puts Taiwanese idioms in it, not direct quotes but Taiwan-type melodies which are immediately identifiable. Gordon Chin’s musical language is more contemporary, quite different from the Requiem, a very challenging piece for the orchestra as well as the soloists. It’s a dark piece, about the emptiness of life and the music portrays the struggle.” Ma’s “Legend,” originally composed for Cloud Gate Dance Company, incorporates actual folk songs.

To understand what the Requiem is about, Tai says, it’s helpful to have some idea about the part of Taiwan’s history that the work commemorates. Taiwan’s population comprises four different ethnic groups which has “led to social problems in modern Taiwanese society,” Tai wrote in her doctoral dissertation on the Requiem. “The conflicts between the groups manifested in an appalling historic event on Feb. 28, 1947, when governmental officials from the [Chinese] mainland first arrived in Taiwan and then executed a massive killing to silence the island’s dissidents against their corrupt government.” The unsuccessful uprising against Chiang Kai-shek and the Kuomintang regime in 1947 left thousands dead and a 60-year stain of bitterness and unrest.

The Requiem is about the fight for freedom, about the past and future of the island. Its sets to music the words of four poems by Min-Yung Lee, and requires soprano and baritone soloists and a full choir that can sing in Taiwanese.

Tai put together a choir of 80 singers: 45 members of various local choirs, plus the Egret Choir from Vancouver B.C. and 18 singers and a baritone soloist from Taiwan. Tai rehearsed singers in Taiwan this summer, and this past week has been in Vancouver to work with the Egret. She brought in guest conductor KuanFen Liu for “Legend,” and Liu will also sing in the Requiem choir.

“We have quite a few Taiwanese solo performers in this concert: two instrumentalists, a wonderful opera singer from Taiwan and a guest conductor from California, plus our soprano soloist from St. James Cathedral Choir,” Tai says. “I see this concert as an opportunity to show off as many Taiwanese talents as possible, along with Taiwanese composers’ music.” Violin and cello soloists for Chin’s substantial concerto are Taiwanese and Rondello is the pianist.

A concert of this magnitude would be a big undertaking for a professional orchestra, let alone a local chamber orchestra of about 45 musicians who play for the love of it. But Philharmonia Northwest is no ordinary group.

In 1976 it began as an offshoot of the Thalia Symphony, for musicians who wanted to play works for smaller ensembles. There were no chamber orchestras in the Seattle area at the time, so the Thalia Chamber Symphony was begun at the impetus of cellist Frances Walton who conducted for the next 10 years. At first, it included anyone who wanted to play, but under its next conductor, Roupen Shakarian, the orchestra began auditioning players and the name was changed to Philharmonia Northwest in 1987.

When Shakarian moved to the Skagit area, the orchestra, by then a well-regarded musical group, spent a year auditioning to find the right successor. It chose Tai, a rising conductor, who began her tenure in 2011. Tai upholds Shakarian’s emphasis on music by local composers and showcasing the diverse talent of the region by inviting top local soloists to perform with the ensemble. At the same time, she challenges the orchestra by programming a wider variety of works, many contemporary, some from other countries and often more difficult than the Philharmonia’s previous repertoire. “But I always try to have a balance,” she says, with more familiar works on programs as well.

The orchestra’s quality, already high under Shakarian, has risen steadily. Among the current musicians are engineers and teachers, lawyers and medical personnel, and many new young people have joined since Tai’s arrival seven years ago, including players from the tech world of Google, Microsoft, Amazon. Quite a few players, like violinist Ann Rackl, a founding Philharmonia member and current president of the board, have degrees in music. Now retired, her career was teaching ESL.

Rackl loved playing under both Walton and Shakarian and enjoys it immensely under Tai. “Julia is such a great musician,” she says. “She has such a wide range of abilities in different kinds of music, so we get introduced to works we’ve never seen before. The repertoire has become more difficult, more varied, we have been pushed quite a bit. The Chin piece has really challenging rhythms, with some notations I’ve never seen.” She owns to needing to practice more nowadays.

The orchestra rehearses weekly in North Seattle and generally performs concerts at St. Stephen’s Episcopal Church in Laurelhurst. But Tai has emphasized reaching out to the neighborhoods, to be useful to the community, she says. She started by going to schools and asking what they have, what they want and what they need. “We started inviting some top students to play side by side with us—Ballard last year, Ingraham this year,” she says. “When I talk to high school students and ask if they intend to play in college, they say there probably won’t be much time.” When students come to Philharmonia Northwest and see people in other professions still playing, she adds, it lets them know they don’t have to be professional to have an opportunity to play.

“Community outreach, especially with young people, is so important for the long-term health of our field,” she says. “Very few of these students will become professional musicians, and this experience shows them that you can keep playing at a very high level, even if you don’t make a career out of it. Orchestras like Philharmonia Northwest are as important a part of the classical music ecosystem as professional ensembles.”

Philharmonia Northwest performs Ilha Formosa (Music of Taiwan) this Saturday, Sept. 29, at Benaroya Hall