Happy lunar new year! 恭喜發財！(gong xi fa cai!) It’s quite a marvellous thing that this traditional greeting for Chinese New Year doesn’t mean “Happy New Year!” but in fact is much closer to “hope you get rich!” I suppose this reinforces a particular cultural stereotype and might explain how “Socialism with Chinese Characteristics” became such a successful cognitive dissonance in China after Reform and Opening Up! Ronnie Chieng has an excellent bit about this very special new year greeting! (NB Language warning!)
Unfortunately due to Covid, millions of family reunions were unable to occur on New Year’s Eve last Thursday. I imagine there's been a lot of love sent through the ether. Curiously, though my family in Malaysia can't get together to celebrate, they would be able to gather together at a night market, according to Malaysian Government regulations!
My mum’s family came from humble beginnings in Penang, Malaysia, and before that in Fujian, China. Their stories are astonishing and I look forward to telling them some day. But today I want to share a poem about my mother Teh Lian Choo. It's called Lessons from my Mother. Growing up in inner city Georgetown, Penang, as the 10th of 11 children, she experienced a lot of trauma in her childhood - as did many others. In particular, a lot of hardship and was placed on girls and women, as they are considered lesser in old-fashioned Chinese culture (though this still persists in many societies and families). There has been a lot of intergenerational trauma passed down because of this devaluation of daughters.
When my mother had children, she made a conscious choice not to pass on that pain to her family. When I reflect on the stories of what she and others endure, I recognise that this can't have been easy. In a powerful act of love, she decided that those generations of pain and abuse would end with her, protecting my sister and I from that legacy. As Janet and I have gotten older and learned more about the world, we have come to understand just how significant this is. We will always be so grateful to Mum for that.
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Last November I recorded a recital for Victorian Opera and it has just been released! This is the first performance I gave after the marathon second wave lockdown last year, and I must confess I was incredibly nervous. I hadn't felt so ill-at-ease before a gig since my final high school recital when I was 18! Not only was I nervous about the actual singing, but simply leaving the house and being out in the world made me uneasy after so long under stage 4 restrictions. But it is always such a joy to make music with the wonderful Phoebe Briggs and I was particularly excited about the repertoire.
In particular, it was such a pleasure to record a song from Richard Mills' Here Where Death and Life are Met - a song cycle of poems by the enigmatic Australian poet Judith Wright. Together, Phoebe and I recorded Phaius Orchid - a poem about humbly beautiful flower that grows in swampy brackish conditions. This echoes the symbolism of the lotus flower (蓮花 lián hua) in Buddhism as something beautiful that emerges from unfavourable and muddy and conditions. Fittingly, my mum’s name, Lian, is this same character lián (蓮).
As well as a prolific conductor and composer, Richard is an avid gardener. Last week he was featured on Gardening Australia, showcasing his own wonderful orchid collection. At one point, he eloquently links leaf growth to Beethoven sonatas! Check it out here.
Phoebe and I also recorded two Chinese art songs. The first is Spring Nostalgia (春思曲, Chun si qu) by the 1930s prodigy Huang Zi (黃自), followed by The Swallow (燕子, Yanzi) - a folk song from Xinjiang Province arranged by Wu Zuqiang (吳祖强). Spring Nostalgia rather fittingly tells the story of a person stuck at home while their love is far away. Huang Zi had studied music in the US before returning to China during the years of the Republic. You can hear the influence of French mélodie in this emotionally charged little song. The Swallow is a Kazakh love song of the Xinjiang region, translated into Mandarin. As with European composers such as Mahler, Bartok and Britten, Chinese composers also looked to their nation’s folk traditions for musical inspiration and source material. Wu’s artful and tender arrangement is an example of this.
Our recital begins with a couple of trad opera faves: the ardent Dies Bildnis from Mozart’s The Magic Flute and Macduff’s tragic aria from Verdi’s Macbeth. I hope you enjoy this little musical offering. May it be of some comfort, delight or distraction during these days of uncertainty.
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Speaking of which, Melbourne is now in a 5 day snap lockdown. For many it means losing income from casual work and the further stresses of housing and food insecurity. This particularly affects people musicians and artists, who are trying to make ends meet while waiting for our devastated industry to reestablish itself. The the ABC reported today that three in five workers have considered leaving the Victorian music industry permanently. Last month, I was able to chat with Jessie Wang at CutCommon Magazine about mental health in the arts. I believe this is a subject that will only grow in importance in the years to come.