Songs of Life

I recently experienced two magnificent, yet entirely different, choral concerts. The first one, “Songs of Life,” was performed by the Columbia Chinese Choral Arts Society (CCCAS) at Howard County Community College Theater. The other, “The Essential Bernstein,” featured some of the best known tunes from such masterpieces as “The West Side Story” and “Candide,” and was performed by The Washington Chorus at the Kennedy Center.

Both concerts gave me complete musical enjoyment, exceeding my expectations. But the Howard County-based Columbia Chinese choir really moved me and created an emotional response with the audience. More than just a concert, this was a happy, vibrant, and cohesive community telling their American success stories through a beautiful blend of Western repertoire and all-time favorite Chinese folk songs.

The story of CCCAS is the story of an immigrant community finding its emotional footing in our region. Its success was the culmination of years of perseverance, music learning and cultural refinement. When Phil Peng, a lyric tenor by training, first took the helm as the choir’s conductor and artistic director, there were about 30 members. Today the choir has more than doubled its membership. They are highly educated professionals, including doctors and scientists, and the group is among the most respected Chinese community choirs in the area.

Conducting a community choir has its share of musical, cultural and personal challenges. I was amused watching Phil transcribing music scores from Western scales to Chinese scales so his choir members would be able to read them. From teaching singing and coaching vocal techniques for each vocal section, to pushing choir members out of their comfort zones to integrate non-Chinese songs into their repertoire, he has invested his heart and soul into building this choir from the ground up, and was handsomely rewarded when “Songs of Life” lifted everyone’s spirit.

Perhaps no other communities here embrace music as much as the Chinese community. As it is a largely secular community (for historic reasons), music and cultural activities have become an embodiment of community spirit and cultural identity for the tens of thousands of Chinese natives in the region. From the annual Haihua Choral Festival in May that draws over a dozen Chinese choirs, to the annual Lunar New Year celebrations, there is a dazzling array of cultural performances year-round. Venues such as the Mormon Temple, the Jewish Community Center, the Rockville Civic Center, and high school auditoriums have become cultural arts centers for groups that don’t have their own churches, mosques, or temples.

An important driver of this phenomenon is the plethora of professionally trained singers, conductors and instrumentalists in the local Chinese community. Some have studied at top music schools in China such as the Shanghai Conservatory of Music, where Phil and many of his friends here graduated from. Some were award-winning musicians in China, and almost all have advanced music degrees from the United States. But that did not make their lives as immigrants any easier. Most are no longer performing professionally but remain active in community music activities from producing large-scale cultural performances to giving individual recitals and special productions. Their work adds much vitality and quality of life to our community and our region. We owe them a debt of gratitude for putting their talents to work to make our life so much more interesting and colorful.

The irony of these musicians’ lives is that in pursuing their American dreams, most ended up giving up their professional music dreams to make a living. It is a theme repeated in so many communities and with so many professions. Most of us can be trained to do many things in life, but each of us is only great at a few things. When we are not using our God-given talents, it’s a loss to humanity and to our individual lives.

As the concert halls throughout the region fill with holiday staples such as “The Nutcracker,” Handel’s “Messiah” and favorite Christmas carols, I hope you will take advantage of our local communities’ holiday celebrations that are getting more elaborate, prolific, and professional each year.

Oh, did I mention that throughout the performance by Columbia Chinese choir, I couldn’t take my eyes off its charismatic conductor? Phil seemed even more handsome and attractive than the day I married him in China more than 20 years ago!