As the live orchestra began to hum under the direction of Chinese-American composer Jason Kao Hwang, one face stood out in the audience. Mr. Fang Zheng, a young survivor of the 1989 Tiananmen Square tragedy who lost both of his legs in the conflict, who lowered his head in memory of the friends he lost that night twenty-six years ago.
It’s opening night at the nineteenth annual Multicultural Music Encounters symposium and the evening is dedicated to achieving a greater understanding of the repression of free speech in China that caused the occurrence, which has since redefined the meaning of the popular tourist location. This was but the first of a three-day presentation series, followed by an in-depth look into Guatemalan President Jacobo Arbenz’ controversial agrarian reforms of 1954 on Friday, and the surviving legacy of President Salvador Allende in 1960’s Chile on Saturday.
To most, these concepts are certainly the stuff of mundane university seminars. But onstage, in the Lovinger Theater at Lehman College in the Bronx, history is cloaked in music and drama, with original symphonic compositions carefully choreographed with powerful images projected onto a screen above a live orchestra.
Each of the three nights featured a panel comprised of scholars and activists discussing the causes and repercussions of the historical subject, in addition to the world premiere of an orchestral interpretation of the event created by a native of the country in question. This year’s composers were Mr. Fang Zheng of China, Mr. Sergio Reyes of Guatemala, and Mr. Fernando Garcia of Chile.
The event was organized by The Multicultural Music Group, a nonprofit organization that provides multicultural symphony performances, workshops for teachers and instrumental music programs at public schools in New York City.
Since the Multicultural Music Encounters presentations began in 1996, The Multicultural Music Group, Inc. and their team of artists and educators have discovered that people who might never attend a half-hour lecture will be engrossed in two hours of history, presented as top-notch musical performance.
While the panel discussions have a tendency to come off as a bit didactic at times, and the budget constraints of a small non-profit limit the amount of visual effects, the Multicultural Music Group has achieved a formidable victory in bringing a fresh combination of education and culture into an otherwise underprivileged part of the city. Furthermore, admission is completely free in order for those who would not otherwise have the opportunity to see a live orchestra to engage in an immersive historical and cultural experience.