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Sophisticated puppetry draws young and old in month-long Chinese festival

Quanzhou Marionette Theater is part of the “Ancient Paths, Modern Voices” bicoastal celebration of Chinese culture.

By Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / October 26, 2009

Costa Mesa, Calif.

The crowd spilling onto the sleek plaza in front of Orange County's coolly modern Renée and Henry Segerstrom Concert Hall is chatty and loud, bubbling over with comments about the performance. A few are even humming snatches of music from the evening. A typical philharmonic après performance vignette, to be sure.

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But a closer look and listen reveals a more singular cultural event. A teenage girl flips out a cellphone and says, "Papa!" Then, a stream of adolescent giggling and rapid-fire conversation follows – in Chinese. An older man strolls past a mirror and adjusts his appearance as he whistles – a pentatonic scale, the harmonic foundation of much Chinese music.

What's unfolding here at the Orange County Performing Arts Center is a bicoastal partnership with New York's Carnegie Hall called "Ancient Paths, Modern Voices," a first-time, six-week festival honoring Chinese culture. The ambitious menu features exotic fare such as pipa virtuoso Wu Man, who performs traditional music rarely seen in urban regions of China, let alone outside the country, as well as international superstars from the "Class of 1978" (the first classically trained musicians to graduate conservatory after China's devastating Cultural Revolution).

Tonight, the Quanzhou Marionette Theater surprised, amazed, and delighted an eclectic mix of loyal, gray-haired philharmonic subscribers, restless students, and young children.

"I especially liked the way the marionettes looked like they were moving on their own," says 11-year-old Tristan Epstein. "They were so sophisticated."

His sister, Lily, who is also 11 (along with brother Noah – the three siblings are triplets) says, "Even the hands moved as if they were alive."

Their father, Benjamin, stands nearby mulling over comparisons to local shows he and his children have enjoyed. "We went to one in downtown L.A., and it just doesn't compare," he says. "This gave you such a sense of what the people... oops." He stops and adds with a laugh, "I mean, marionettes, were thinking."