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The Secret Songs of Women

May 29, 2014

One definite highlight of the Orchestra’s tour is Chinese composer Tan Dun’s Nu Shu: The Secret Songs of Women. The multi-media work—which received its U.S. premiere in Verizon Hall with Yannick and the Philadelphians last fall—is being performed in multiple cities (including today’s concert in Shenzhen), but nowhere was it more highly anticipated than in Tan Dan’s native Hunan Province. Tuesday’s concert in Changsha was thrilling, powerful, and emotional.

“Can you even imagine what it’s like for me, to have this piece performed here in my home?” said Tan Dun backstage, after exchanging big hugs with Yannick and Principal Harp Elizabeth Hainen, for whom he wrote the piece. “I can’t believe it!”

At the heart of Nu Shu is an ancient secret language devised by Chinese women who were forbidden to learn the men’s language. For generations, mothers passed the language along to their daughters by singing. Today, only a handful of women still speak the language. They are the soul of Nu Shu—Tan Dun recorded them, weaving audio and video of their haunting singing together with orchestra and solo harp—and on Tuesday, they were stars as well. Six of the women featured in the films were in the Changsha audience.

“It was very special to perform this piece here, with the women in the audience, where the language originated,” said Yannick. “It was very emotional for us, and everything I thought it would be.”

After the performance, as Tan Dun took the stage for bows, Yannick called the Nu Shu women up to join them. Smiling, they turned to the musicians and bowed. The audience erupted in cheers. “Xie xie,” said the women, repeatedly. “Thank you!”

 The concert drew enormous media coverage. Dozens of video and still cameras flanked both sides of the Hunan Grand Theatre. At a press conference before the performance, Orchestra President and CEO Allison Vulgamore described the piece as a poignant and insightful work about strength, resilience, and the enduring creative spirit—one that has left her profoundly moved as a female leader. Hainen also performed—and was rewarded with hugs from the women afterward.

(Read more from Elizabeth on her website—http://www.elizabethhainen.com/category/journal)

The Orchestra played to a completely packed house. Every seat was occupied—many with parents holding children on their laps. The audience seemed a bit unsure how to cheer—so they got help from Yannick. The music director encouraged the audience from the podium, “conducting” them through cheers for each section of the Orchestra. By the end of the curtain calls, he had whipped them into a full frenzy that continued until he left the stage with Concertmaster David Kim.

Afterwards, Yannick was greeted in true rock-star fashion. Adoring fans swarmed him, jockeying for photos and autographs, as he made his way out of the hall.