The lion dances, fortune-telling and rabbit petting zoo in Davies Symphony Hall were all mere prologues to the San Francisco Symphony’s sweeping Lunar New Year festivities on the night of Feb. 5th. In celebration of the Year of the Rabbit, a red-clad crowd swarmed the venue’s lobby in anticipation, making lanterns and sampling dragon’s beard candy before finally spilling into the concert hall.
With Korean-Canadian conductor Earl Lee at the helm of the orchestra, the program commenced its new-year welcomes with An-Lun Huang’s “Saibei Dance” from “Saibei Suite No. 2, Opus 21.” Its chipper flute solo unleashed a flurry of idyllic liveliness into the hall, only to have its jubilant melody seized swiftly by a sudden torrent of bursting volume. Scaling the piece’s vigorous dynamic shifts with impressive range, strings and wings alike traversed its thunderously clarion phrasings with contagious gusto.
The final notes of “Saibei Dance” dissolved into feverish applause as Lee beckoned the night’s vocal soloist onstage. Dressed in a striking pink gown and a radiant smile, South Korean soprano Sumi Jo rivaled the sun in brilliance as she stood before the crowd. While her powerful vibrato coasted over the tranquil instrumentation of Huang Tzu’s “Three Wishes of the Rose,” it climbed to a soaring timbre in the fairytale-esque allure of Geung-su Lim’s “As the Spring Approaches Across the River.” Though at times dwarfed by the orchestra’s overwhelming energy, Jo’s chill-inducing vocals required no microphone to crest the venue’s acrylic-plated ceiling.
In a return to orchestral works, the SF Symphony slipped into the guttural chirps of “Flower Drum Song from Feng Yang,” a selection from Huang Ruo’s “Folk Songs.” Teeming with equal parts drama and grace, the sundry percussion and bright brass played mercurial fire to the woodwinds’ lissom water. The piece paired with the final movement in “Folk Songs” — the surging, rhythmically driven “Girl from Da Ban City” — to culminate in a theatrical conclusion flush with tense harmonies and electric charisma.
The brisk verve of Ruo bled into ethereal luminosity with the entrance of Tyzen Hsiao’s “The Angel From Formosa.” With a chorus of refulgent harmonies overlapping seamlessly into one another, the piece’s honeyed, porous texture swayed with poignant wonder. Tenderness ran in the undercurrents of the orchestra’s slow spirals of sound, with each instrument encroaching and receding on the shores of melodic control.
On the heels of Hsiao’s serene final note, Jo made her grand reappearance onstage. Adopting a rippling, tulle-like vocal texture on Du-Nam Cho’s “Pioneer,” the soprano’s formidable adaptability carried into Hong-Ryol Lee’s playful, quick “In the Flower Clouds” with masterful ease. Evincing strength through her outstretched hand and resounding voice, Jo inflected flourish into each note, inviting clamorous applause at the terminus of each song.
Yet, Jo wasn’t quite ready to bid goodnight at the conclusion of “In the Flower Clouds.” Introducing “Missing Geumgang Mountain” by Young Soeb-Choe as her encore, Jo explained its significance as artistic hope for the reunification of North and South Korea. The song’s sweeping, sustained passages and dreamlike soundscape mesmerized the audience, with Jo’s reverberating voice leading the SF Symphony through its evocative composition.
In preparation for the night’s final act, composer Zhou Tian leapt onto the stage to offer a preamble to “Transcend”; commissioned as a commemoration of the 150th anniversary of the Transcontinental Railroad’s completion, the piece is a particularly moving tribute to the thousands of Chinese laborers who worked on the railroad’s construction. The movement “Promise” embodied a mouthpiece of perseverance for a brighter future, featuring an imposing exposition undercut by pensive lyricism. Meanwhile, the blazing might of “D.O.N.E,” inspired by the titular Morse code message that signaled across national telegraphs at the railroad’s completion, embodied the program’s intense grand finale.
Lee, however, was poised to herald a year of abundance by gifting the audience with an encore in the form of “Spring Festival Overture” by Li Huanzhi. The piece’s bright, jubilant concoction of sound dispensed both jaunty rhythms and a motley melodies: Its euphoric opening theme was tempered with a soothing midsection, made complete with rich cello and soothing oboe. Triumphant, hopeful and marvelous in scope, the overture embodied a fitting final welcome to the unfurling new year to come.