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.

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.

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."

The performance, a centuries-old, traditional blend of virtuosic skill with the marionettes, Peking Opera, and classic Chinese fables, was an eye-popping demonstration of a beloved art form familiar to nearly every Chinese family. Fifteen-year-old Kelly Chen, whose parents are Taiwanese, says her parents watch Peking Opera on television at home "all the time." She and classmate Lisa Ching – who phoned her dad as they were leaving the hall – are here because their Chinese teacher at the local Oxford Academy encouraged them to come. They both speak the language, but say they still read the supertitles displayed at the show.

"It was good," says Ms. Ching. "I really liked the costumes, but I don't think I would have come if our teacher hadn't told us about it," she adds with an embarrassed giggle.

This sort of cross-cultural and cross-generational appeal is at the heart of the festival concept. The goal, says Clive Gillinson, executive and artistic director of Carnegie Hall, is to open a window on a culture whose influence is growing around the world. "China is arguably one of the two dominant forces of the 21st century," he says by phone from New York.

The festival's East Coast version is shorter – three weeks long and it ends Nov. 10 – but even the West Coast schedule, which goes through Nov. 24, couldn't begin to encompass the breadth of Chinese culture.

"We are not trying to be encyclopedic," he points out, adding with a laugh, "People don't read encyclopedias for fun, they read novels." And so, the selection process looked rather for the delightful, the wonderful, the insightful, and yes, the educational but with a small "e." As for the bicoastal approach, he says it emerged from a meeting of minds between himself and Orange County philanthropist Henry Segerstrom.

"This is a man who feels the arts must be at the heart of every great culture," he says, so he jumped at the opportunity to bring the best from China to the arts center that bears his name.

"We are hoping to open people's eyes to the breadth and depth of Chinese creativity," says Dean Corey, president and artistic director of the Philharmonic Society of Orange County, also by phone from New York. One of the misconceptions many people have about Chinese musicians is that they are machines of virtuosity but lack originality. "We hope to dispel that notion," he says.

An evening with the skillful marionette show has certainly impressed Noah Epstein. "I had no idea they were so sophisticated," he says. "I also had no idea they revered and respected Buddha so much," he adds, thinking hard about the characters in the performance. "I think they are a very spiritual people, don't you?"

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