The Shen Yun Symphony Orchestra’s appearance last Wednesday, October 9th, at Symphony Hall was an unremarkable musical event, but a fascinating cultural one. Shen Yun Performing Arts has gained a certain amount of notoriety for its practice of housing its musicians on a remote New YorkState campus (called “The Mountain”) when not on tour and for incorporating the spiritual/meditation practice of Falun Dafa as a mandatory part of the musicians’ daily schedule. Membership in Shen Yun is a full-time-plus commitment to not only work, but a very unique artistic community, as I learned from their informational material and from conversations with the musicians. If I remained unconvinced that their approach to music-making led to transcendent results, I at least came away intrigued by this experiment in East-West cultural amalgamation. (Shun Yun also comprises a dance company, featured in many of their performances; Wednesday night’s was solely instrumental.)
Wednesday’s performance was led by four co-conductors: Milen Nachev, Leif Sundstrup, Keng-Wei Kuo, and Boston’s own Yohei Sato. The conductors, it should be noted, are no mere jet-setting guests, but permanent and exclusive fixtures in Shen Yun for the duration of their work with the orchestra. Artistic decisions for the group are made exclusively by the group’s leader, Master Li (Li Hongzhi, founder of the modern Falun Dafa movement), an arrangement that seems to lead to a remarkable level of equality among members—perhaps at the cost of spontaneity and creativity in the crafting and execution of each performance. Wednesday’s program was a standard pops offering, both Chinese and Western. Pulled off with a decent level of gusto and a tight ensemble, it was pleasing and accessible music, containing few surprises and no revelatory moments.
In theory, Shen Yun’s mission statement is “reviving five thousand years of civilization.” In practice, their goals seem more immediate and populist. Their advertised press quotes are from international businesspeople, politicians, and actors (like Cate Blanchett) rather than major music critics, and tend to emphasize the universality of the concert experience. The detailed program notes on the original Chinese works on the program, with titles such as “Sewing the Flowers of Heaven,” “Spirit of the Han Dynasty,” and “Divine Compassion,” chronicled historical, spiritual, and visual inspirations in great detail—nuances which rarely came through in the music itself, which for the most part superimposed pentatonic themes on traditional Western harmony. Simply put, the orchestra played orchestral pops done Chinese style—a genre that, while having a purpose and a fan base, cannot quite support the amount of rhetorical importance that Shen Yun ascribed to it. Classical offerings, consisting of Beethoven’s Egmont Overture, two Leroy Anderson triple-trumpet tunes, Tchaikovsky’s Polonaise from Eugene Onegin, and a double-flute showpiece, were similarly light and crowd-pleasing.
The one aspect of the orchestra that made me sit up and take notice were the traditional Chinese instruments, pipa, erhu, and suona, placed in front of the first row of woodwinds. These players got brief chances to shine in the Chinese works, and their skillfully playing (in quite a different context from that of the subway and street musicians who are the ambassadors of such instruments for many Bostonians) was a welcome breath of fresh air. It left me wondering what possibilities lie in truly integrating these instruments with Western ones, rather than isolating them in brief solo passages. I’ll keep my eye out and ears open for more innovative contemporary Chinese composers—I know that, as ambassadors from the East, Shen Yun’s programming does not do its rich musical culture justice.
Although I won’t be signing up to audition for Shen Yun anytime soon (the organization has recently been welcoming more outsiders to their traditionally Chinese musician pool), they seem to be thriving in their marketing niche and in their artistic and social experiment.