Drummers and Cellists and Beethoven, Oh My: Asian Heritage and the CPO

by Carey Rutherford

May was Asian Heritage Month in Canada, did you know that? Well, you missed it!

Unless you actually took in one of the events they organized around the city through the Asian Heritage Foundation, who describe themselves on their website as:

“a non-profit, non-governmental organization with concerns encompassing the cultures, traditions, public affairs, arts and sciences of all regions of Asia, especially South Asia, (and aiming) to support projects that reconcile the frictions between people, technology and nature, between the old and new, the East and West that are manifest in cultural products and services.”

And what better way to encourage cross-cultural dialogue than with music?!

“That’s what got me involved in Asian Heritage,” exults Dr. Mayi Arcellana-Panlilio, musical member of the AHF’s Wisdom Council: “the whole organization. Theresa (Woo-Paw, Southern Alberta branch founder) at the time wanted to put together a concert, (Asian Heritage month has been going on since 2002). But it was mostly Chinese music. The next year, she wanted to make it more pan-Asian, and so she knew a friend, who knew a friend, who knew me.

“And so I was able to get some music from the Philippines. . . Gosh,  that means I’ve been doing this for 14 years!”

This is why, at the May 11th Asian Heritage Month gala in conjunction with the Calgary Philharmonic Orchestra and others, Mayi was there to introduce and explain the connections between cellist Arnold Choi, pianist Annie Pham and the Midnight Taiko Kai Drummers: they performed in the Jack Singer Concert Hall’s lobby while hundreds of attendees enjoyed a diaspora of Asian foods before the 6:30 CPO performance of Beethoven’s 6th Symphony.

Dr. Arcellana-Panlilio recalls: “For those first few years, we were getting the Calgary Philharmonic to play orchestral pieces from different parts of the world.. . . I got music from Philippine composers; Then we had music from Vietnam and, of course, China.

“The great thing about the concerts was, (do you recall) how at that time there was a conflict between Iraq and Iran? We had music from both countries on the same stage, so that was cool! And then there’s that perpetual kind of Taiwan and China (thing): and they were also on the same stage last year.

“That was kind of heartening, because there’s always that ideal: that music can cross borders and and it doesn’t have to be political; so that sworn enemies can be on the same stage making music!” she said.

This year’s gala doesn’t hold quite the same global tension, which MUSICAlive! agrees is just fine: Calgary-born Arnold Choi, a musical globetrotter following his graduation, returned to Calgary to become the CPO’s principal cellist. At the gala he brought those elements and his Chinese heritage together with Bright Sheng’s 7 tunes heard in China, Cello Solo works based upon folk musics heard through different regions there.

Arnold Choi photo by Ivy MIller

“He chose a selection that had different textures: there is a traditional Chinese instrument with 2 strings (erhu), and when he was playing that’s what it reminded me of.”

“The pianist was Annie Pham: her parents are from Vietnam, her training is classical piano, and she (teaches that with) Musica Academy – the Yamaha Music School, and is an international music adjudicator. The first piece that she played is based on a really popular Vietnamese song (Cung Tien’s ‘Hoai Cam’: ‘Emotional Recollections’) . . . a pre-war composer. I guess it’s a song that people, especially immigrants settling here in Calgary, (really love): it’s a song from BEFORE everything fell apart in Vietnam.

Annie Pham photo by Ivy Miller

“The second (set of) pieces were from the Philippines. The tone of the Marcelo Adonay (works) is quite different.. . . (I)t doesn’t sound like the stereotypical Asian (music) because Philippine music (has) had so much Spanish (and American) influences.. . . So those two songs by that composer were a bit like “the Vivaldi of the Philippines’.. . .  But these songs were personal pieces: one he composed for his daughter” ; the other he dedicated to his god-daughter.

Asking Mayi if the composer is well-known in the Philippines like the Vietnamese one is, she points out that Filipinos will know all the big rock and pop names, like the Stones, Beatles, Beyoncé, but not their own composers. MUSICAlive! comments that then it’s like Canada and we both laugh.

Mayi notes: “It’s a way to introduce it to Calgarians and Canadians, but also to introduce it to the Philippine community, who had never heard of him!”

Much more recognizable could be Annie’s last piece, composer A. R. Rahman’s (East Indian) piece “Jai Ho”, for the 2008 film, Slumdog Millionaire, a film that surely needs no introduction.

And, last but not least.. . .

Midnight Taiko Kai Drummer photo by Ivy Miller

“The Midnight Taiko Drummers were chosen to be last because they always bring the house down! I always have to move away from where they are, because my ears almost feel like they’re going to burst! But they are so much fun!”

Midnight Taiko Kai Drummers photo by Ivy Miller

Mayi mentions the diversity/assimilation success of the drummers, that of the 10 performers onstage only 2 of them are Asian:

“And they learned how to drum in the Taiko style; They’re Calgary based; and they have workshops and lessons, and  people can come and apply to join, and they practice in the Japanese Cultural Centre, but most of them are Caucasian, which is kind of cool, right?”

Right!