It's probably safe to say that the Pacific Symphony is the only orchestra in the world to attempt a Thelonius Monk jazz standard using the pipa, a traditional Chinese instrument, as a concert centerpiece. But here, on a Sunday night, the unusual fusion of two traditions is just one of the many extraordinary pairings of Eastern and Western instruments and sounds that make up the "Tradewinds from China" festival.
This is the latest installment in the orchestra's ongoing American Composers Festival. But more important, it lifts the baton on an unprecedented three-year initiative to explore the impact of non-European sounds on Western music. It marks the Pacific Symphony Orchestra as a leader in what it believes is the cutting edge of contemporary classical music.
"I don't know of another orchestra that has focused on this issue even in the course of a single season, let alone over a period of years," says artistic advisor Joe Horowitz, who helped assemble the month-long "Tradewinds" festival. He hopes the project will be a catalyst for more cross-cultural fusions.
"It hasn't penetrated the consciousness of the symphonic community that this is happening all around us, every day," he says, "but once you become aware of these influences from all over the world, it just seems inescapable."
Opening with an exploration of Chinese-American composers was an obvious choice, says Mr. Horowitz, a New York based author ("Understanding Toscanini"), who has written extensively about the state of the modern symphony orchestra.
"The most important group of composers in mid-career today happen to be Chinese," he says, adding that this is understandable, given their recent political history.
"They came out of the Chinese Cultural Revolution fired up with a sense of mission and emotional urgency," Horowitz says, noting that few Western composers can claim to have experienced personal odysseys of such a dramatic nature.
The festival features five world premières by four of the most prominent Chinese-American composers working today, including Academy Award winner Tan Dun ("Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon").
Cellist Yo-Yo Ma, whose Silk Road Project has taken him around the world exploring the melding of numerous musical traditions, has been tapped to play one of the commissions, a new cello concerto by Chen Yi.
This commitment to new music has also helped make the orchestra an important force on the national music scene. In fact, the orchestra has long championed works that look beyond traditional boundaries - both musical and geographical.
Music director Carl St. Clair points to the 1996 commission of "Fire Paper Water: A Vietnam Oratorio" by Elliot Goldenthal as one of his proudest moments. "This was a strong story that linked two countries," he says. "It spanned the oceans and brought the flavor of Vietnam to Orange County and paid homage to the human endeavor on all sides of that war. This was something only music could do. It connected people."
The Pacific Symphony Orchestra, whose budget is $12 million, is celebrating its 25th anniversary this year but has already jumped into the ranks of the top 50 orchestras in the country (out of 350 professional orchestras in the US). "They are a major force in the orchestra world," says Jack McAuliffe, vice president of the American Symphony Orchestra League. "And probably one of the youngest," he adds.
The symphony's lack of institutional traditions has helped them respond to what Mr. St. Clair calls the new demands on today's symphony orchestras. "We have to respond to the needs of community," he says, adding that Orange County has strong ethnic enclaves, particularly Asian.
This commitment to "growing" with the audience results in such nontraditional symphonic evenings as this past Sunday night, when the evening opened not with a tuxedoed maestro stepping to the podium and raising his baton, but with shaggy-haired Joe Horowitz shuffling onstage, microphone in hand, to explain what the audience was about to hear.
"These composers share the same story," says Horowitz, as he strolls around the stage. They were musicians, deeply versed in Western musical traditions, he says. Then "they all lived through the Cultural Revolution in China."
That traumatic experience during the 1960s, and the effort to reconcile the two musical traditions, has informed and ultimately defined the music they have created, Horowitz says. He returns after each piece, to add more information.
The program unfolds with a mix of playful folk song-inspired choral works and the solo Monk work, then moves on to the haunting world première: a duet for bass and piano based on the poetry of Chinese writer, Li-Bai. It concludes with the ambitious "Tales from the Cave," for percussion, erhu, and banhu, two traditional Chinese instruments.
This is all music to the heads and hearts of the local immigrant communities, who are responding with both personal and financial support. Yat Chan, a middle-aged printer who moved to Los Angeles from Hong Kong 13 years ago, begged a ticket from a friend. "I come, I hear the erhu. It makes me feel good," he says. "I came just for this."
His companion, Adrien So, an ad salesman from 50 miles north of Orange County, works for the Chinese Daily News, a symphony sponsor. He points to the newspaper's ad in the program and says everyone in the Chinese community supports the Pacific Symphony.
"They are very avid supporters of this new music," he says. "They like very much to hear the sounds of their own country combined with the sounds of their new country."
Immigrants from far-off countries are not the only supporters who appreciate the orchestra. "I moved my regular subscription from the Los Angeles Philharmonic to here," says radiologist Linda Sutherland, who moved to Orange County 13 years ago. "The company knows its subscribers and really appreciates them," she says. She acknowledges that the new music is not always a pleasure at first hearing. But that's part of what she likes about the symphony. "Even when I don't like the music right away," she says, "I appreciate it and also how hard the musicians work to make sure that I learn something new."