By Nathan Riley
Saturday night [February 25, 2023] Symphony Tacoma continued their 76th season with their third Classics concert, Reconciliation, and premiered a suite of music from Tacoma Method, a new opera from local composer Gregory Youtz and Chinese poet and librettist Zhang Er.
In this four-movement preview of the opera to come, we opened to a scene of our beautiful Pacific Northwest at dawn, honoring the Coast Salish peoples who have lived here since time immemorial. Period paintings and drawings of Tahoma and the Salish Sea were projected over the orchestra as strings tremoloed and winds droned softly. Prerecorded audio of a calm Puget Sound played in the background; crows cawed and birds called. Slowly the noise of logging camps could be heard, and pictures of early logging camps were shown. As more industry built, and rail came to a burgeoning Tacoma, the music, recording, and pictures crescendoed to a climax, then all was still.
Out of the stillness we entered our second movement, a bustling Chinatown on Lunar New Year 1885. A street band played during this joyous occasion, the oompahs filling the concert hall. Images of Tacoma’s Chinatown were shown throughout the movement, and the Symphony Tacoma Voices sang and chanted ‘Gong Hei Fa Choi’ (Happy New Year). The happiness of the second movement was quickly overshadowed by the seriousness of the third.
Set in Autumn 1885, we heard from Mayor Jacob Weisbach (a German immigrant), sung by Bassione van Soest, as he rallied the working white men of Tacoma to exercise their “right to self-preservation” against the Chinamen threat. An image of an 1885 political comic of a wall to keep the Chinese out was projected overhead. As the angry mob left with chants of “The Chinese must go!” Eliza Meeker, sung by Denise Lee, confided to her husband of what she had seen of the mob. Ezra Meeker, sung by Josh Johnson, sorrowful at the failure of democracy noted, “The recollection of this regretful day must not ever be forgotten, under the pressure of a busy life.”
As they exited, Mrs. May the proprietress of a local shop, sung by Hai-Ting Chinn, took their place for the fourth and final movement. Mrs. May lamented how Tacoma is her home. “Where can I go? Back to China?” She reaffirmed to herself that she would not return to China, and that the government and constitution would protect them. “This is America,” looking to her children she continued “They are Americans!”
Symphony Tacoma executed Youtz’s new score beautifully. Tacoma Method’s instrumentation blended the sounds of Eurocentric and Chinese instruments, expressing musically the mix of Tacoma’s cultures. The Symphony Tacoma Voices also put up an outstanding performance of this new work, no doubt in thanks to Dr. Geoffrey Boers’ hard work in preparation and rehearsal. However, the true star of the evening was Hai-Ting Chinn. A commanding stage presence, her powerful conveyance of emotion forced those in attendance to feel the plight of the displaced Chinese before they were loaded on train cars at gunpoint and railroaded away from their home forever, in what would become known as the Tacoma Method.
Tacoma Method’s significance to the history of our community cannot be overstated. As a child, I often visited the Chinese Reconciliation Park on the waterfront. Only now after learning of and hearing Tacoma Method, do I truly understand the park’s significance to the Chinese community of Tacoma. This piece of our history was purposely erased and intentionally “forgotten under the pressure of a busy life.” I now know that Tacoma Method is a necessary continuation of the healing and reconciliation our community needs.
After such an emotional first twenty minutes, Symphony Tacoma followed with Benjamin Britten’s Four Sea Interludes, and cunningly showed the dynamic range of the orchestra. Britten, a masterclass of mid-twentieth century orchestration, is calm and comforting in one moment, raging as the sea in a storm the next, and back to calm in a heartbeat. The winds and brass flourished with their long scalar runs contrasted with pointed unison melodies.
Once we returned from intermission, we were treated to one of the greats of the Romantic era. Ever a stalwart champion of modern music (such as Tacoma Method), Maestra Sarah Ioannides once again demonstrated her mastery of the classics with her world-class showing of Brahms’ Fourth Symphony. Ioannides deftly led the orchestra as the melody of the first movement interweaved though strings, woodwinds, and horns, building to one of the great climaxes of the nineteenth century. The entire symphony was a brilliant lecture on ensemble playing, and the orchestra was a pleasure to listen to the whole evening. Mary Jensen’s phenomenal flute solo in the final movement was breathtaking, and while she had the entire audience captive, most in the orchestra could not help but watch and listen as well. The night ended with a well-earned standing ovation; one I cannot wait to give again soon.
Symphony Tacoma’s next concert, Youthful Brilliance, is March 18 at the Pantages Theater, featuring guest conductor Antoine T. Clark and pianist Janice Carissa.