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FEATURE | Shen Yun Symphony Orchestra Brings Human Dialogue To Toronto

By Ludwig Van on September 11, 2017

Selected members of the Shen Yun Symphony Orchestra. (Photo courtesy Shen Yun Orchestra)
Selected members of the Shen Yun Symphony Orchestra. (Photo courtesy Shen Yun Orchestra)

Presented by the Falun Dafa Association of Toronto

In an increasingly hectic world, it can be difficult to form meaningful relationships with other people. Now more than ever, we need to be reminded of the healing powers of human connection.

Where words fail, art can extend across cultures. This is at the heart of every performance by Shen Yun Performing Arts.

Many Canadians are already familiar with Shen Yun’s noted dance performances, but their Symphony Orchestra is just as vital to their activities. The musicians are a living, breathing example of cultures sitting together in harmony, and the Orchestra is an equal platform for both Western and ethnic Chinese instruments.

Founded in 2012, the Shen Yun Symphony Orchestra puts 5,000 years of Chinese culture to vivid music. Shen Yun’s presenter is the Falun Dafa Association, a cultural group which brings awareness of Falun Gong to audiences outside of China. Within the Shen Yun family, traditional Chinese art forms complement a comprehensive narrative of its people’s history. It makes for an inviting history lesson for all cultures, and it draws a diverse audience across many continents.

An important aspect of Chinese culture is the concept of internal healing, of summoning strength from deep within one’s spirit and body. Emerging from a Shen Yun performance, audiences comment specifically on the healing energy of the music, which had previously lain dormant within their beings. There’s something magical about the soothing, relaxing blend of Eastern and Western sounds, and the healing effects stay with audiences long after they leave the performance.

To gain a better understanding of the music’s mystical qualities, it’s worth exploring its ties to Chinese history. The number five permeates ancient China, and it is highly symbolic in music as well—instruments are tuned to the pentatonic scale, whose five notes represent the five elemental qualities: wood, fire, earth, metal, and water.

The number five also goes hand-in-hand with the culture’s emphasis on health and wellness. Many practises fall under Chinese medicine: acupuncture, Chinese herbology, tuina (Chinese massage), cupping, and qigong, to name but a few. These procedures all draw on the body’s existing humours; once re-aligned, they have an innate power to regain normal health. Here again, the number five is prominent, representing the group of primary organs—heart, kidney, spleen, liver, lungs. In turn, each primary organ is paired with its corresponding elemental quality (wood, fire, earth, metal, water). All these systems are central to healing the body, soothing the soul, and bringing inner peace.

In traditional Chinese culture, the goal is to reach a delicate equilibrium between the spiritual and physical states of existence. In much of the world today, the focus is shifting to the physical state, as material greed and human conflict disrupt entire societies.

In its purest form, art will help recalibrate the body and the spirit. This is Shen Yun’s hope: where in this interconnected network, music may freely flow.

Shen Yun Performing Arts was founded in 2006 as a live performance troupe that showcased exquisite dance and musical acts. It grew in popularity as the years went on, and patrons expressed a fascination with the unique sounds of the Chinese instruments—not only were they exotic on the ears, they seemed to have a profound effect on their spirits and bring physical relief to daily wear and tear on the body. Shen Yun’s musicians responded to the high demand, and the Shen Yun Symphony Orchestra gave their debut performance in 2012 at Carnegie Hall.

There’s something pure to Shen Yun Symphony Orchestra that strikes a chord between Western and Eastern musics. It is a delicate dance between cultures, just like the duality between the spiritual and physical states: there are key differences between the cultures’ musical systems, and each tradition holds differing acoustic concepts. The musicians’ quest for harmony prevailed, and the resulting compromise draws on the strengths of each culture.

Within the conventional Western orchestra with strings, brass, woodwinds, and percussion sections, Shen Yun Symphony Orchestra incorporates ethnic Chinese instruments on the same stage. Under the watch of a conductor, the musicians perform standards from the classical music canon such as Suppé’s Light Calvary Overture, Tchaikovsky’s Violin Concerto, and Dvořák’s Slavonic Dance No. 7, Op. 72. These Western selections alternate with original songs in the Chinese medium, drawing inspiration from folklore and nature:

The erhu figures prominently among Chinese instruments, and is capable of a wide range of tones and emotions on just two strings:

The pipa responds to a wide range of playing techniques, producing both masculine and feminine tones. Its measurements are symbolic: at 3 feet 5 inches, it is connected with the five elemental qualities and represents man’s relationship to the dual worlds of heaven and earth:

The gong is a powerful instrument, but is also capable of delicate nuances and more intimate expression. Though it appears frequently in Western orchestras, it is actually native to China:

Other Chinese percussion instruments have religious origins. In an orchestra, they have different functions depending on their pitch:

Shen Yun’s singers use a traditional treatment of the bel canto style. Their singing combines an ancient technique with stories of Chinese scenes.

Founded on the power of music to connect over the last five millennia, Shen Yun Symphony Orchestra is bringing the healing powers of music to more and more audiences. At Roy Thomson Hall, their performances are very popular among Toronto’s Chinese population, but everybody is welcome—in fact, about 60% of Shen Yun Symphony Orchestra’s Toronto patrons come from non-Chinese communities. It is the same spirit of inclusion that Shen Yun hopes to foster across cultures: this year, the Orchestra will be performing in South Korea and Taiwan before they head to North America in October. Toronto audiences will be able to catch them at Roy Thomson Hall on October 11.

Shen Yun’s musicians believe in the elemental nature of the world around them. Speech, actions, and artistic expression are reflections of oneself, and it is important to uphold this self-image before engaging with others.

In many ways, Shen Yun Symphony Orchestra is built upon longstanding values that extend across cultures. The results seem to resonate well with audiences in the world, and the Orchestra looks to increase their positive contribution to Toronto’s arts scene and beyond.

Shen Yun Symphony Orchestra performs in Toronto on October 11th, 2017, at Roy Thomson Hall. For tickets, visit here

For more information about the Shen Yun Symphony Orchestra, visit here

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