Jeffrey (Huai-Ning) Chao was born in Taiwan and immigrated to Canada in 1996. In the same year, he joined the Calgary Chinese Orchestra as the erhu section leader and soloist. As a music enthusiast, he started his journey at a young age playing the violin. He was first introduced to Chinese music in 1986, where he joined a music group in high school and learned to play erhu. He was instantly captivated by the beautiful sound of the instrument and moved by the richness and the diversity of Chinese music. Chao participated in numerous music performances and competitions, serving as the bowed section lead. In 1990, he started school at Tamkang University in Taipei and joined their Chinese Music club. During his time with the club, Chao developed his conducting skills and was a member/conductor for the Alumni Orchestra of the affiliated senior high school he attended. In 2010, Chao officially became the orchestra conductor.
In January 2018, he became one of the artistic directors of the Calgary Chinese Orchestra, while continuing to lead the orchestra in its music endeavors.
Bang (Bob) Zhang is a highly accomplished Chinese conductor, currently serving as the Music Director and Permanent Conductor of the Calgary Chinese Orchestra. He began his musical journey by learning piano at the age of 3 and later gained admission to the Central Conservatory of Music in Beijing at just 12 years old.
Transitioning to conducting during Grade 10, Bob's exceptional talent led him to achieve the highest national score when he entered the Central Conservatory of Music's conducting program in 2009, studying under the renowned conductor Xiaotang Xia. In 2013, he became the assistant conductor to Linlin Wang and joined the Symphony Orchestra of Renmin University.
Throughout his academic journey, Bob excelled academically and gained extensive experience in conducting, orchestral, and choral rehearsals. Notably, he served as the permanent director for the China Ruan Chamber Ensemble, receiving praise from esteemed composers and guidance from prominent conductors.
Bob collaborated with over 30 orchestras and choruses, including the China National Traditional Orchestra and China Youth Symphony Orchestra, and mentored school orchestras. He also served as a judge in various music festivals, earning acclaim for his exceptional talent and dedication to music.
The Calgary Chinese Orchestra boasts a rich history and cultural significance. Can you take our readers on a journey through the orchestra's origins and evolution into a beloved and integral part of the Calgary community?
Jeffrey: The Calgary Chinese Orchestra (CCO) traces its beginnings to 1997, under the leadership of Professor David Yin, a skilled professional flute player. In those early days, he gathered a group of passionate music enthusiasts as a starting point before solidifying the core members.
As a full-time musician, he was able to nurture young talents, fostering the orchestra's growth.
One important tradition initiated during that time, was the annual concert, which became a hallmark of the CCO. The orchestra performed at various venues and occasions, including the Chinese New Year celebrations and heartwarming visits to senior homes, leaving a lasting impact on those communities.
Professor Lin continued to lead the orchestra until 2008, when he decided to retire. That's when I took on the roles of Conductor and Artistic Director. It's worth noting that many of us in the orchestra have other occupations and are not full-time musicians, which poses a consistent challenge in recruiting and retaining new members.
Despite these hurdles, we are indebted to our dedicated founding members, many of whom are still with us today, for helping keep the orchestra going and alive.
A significant turning point in our history occurred in 2017 when Jiajia Li, a professional flute player, joined us. She played a pivotal role in establishing ties with Mount Royal University and collaborating with other musical groups. We even began rearranging Western music for the Chinese Orchestra, thanks to her vision.
Her arrival brought fresh perspectives, innovative ideas, and connections that revitalized the orchestra.
Another milestone was the arrival of Bob in 2019. His expertise as a professional conductor invigorated the orchestra and lightened my load, especially during the challenging times brought about by the pandemic. Today, we stand strong and continue to thrive.
I'd like to acknowledge the unwavering dedication of our founding members, some of whom have been with us since 1997. It's our shared love for music that binds us together and makes the CCO truly unique. It’s really the dedication of these people.
Could you highlight some of the orchestra's most exciting past projects and the lasting impact they've had on both its members and the audience?
Jeffrey: We've had some remarkable collaborations with other groups. For example, we participated in the Calgary Philharmonic Orchestra's Chinese New Year concerts and were part of Calgary Opera's Opera in the Village series.
One of the most exciting and meaningful projects occurred during the pandemic when the entire arts community faced challenges in performing and working together.
During this time, Jiajia came up with a brilliant idea. She utilized a widely popular Chinese song called 'Horse Race' and managed to gather musicians from all around the world, literally spanning the globe. I had the privilege of compiling the videos into a production called 'Horse Race,' which garnered amazement, even from my friends in Taiwan.
But what truly thrilled me and left a profound impact was our experience performing at senior homes.
One day, we played a traditional Cantonese song, and there was an elderly lady in the audience who wasn't very lucid and rarely interacted with others.
What moved me even more was the aftermath of our performance. As we packed up our instruments and prepared to leave, several residents, including those who relied on walkers, came to the door to express their gratitude. It was a touching reminder of how our music could bring happiness to their lives.
Another aspect worth noting is our collaboration with professional musicians from various locations. We've had the privilege of inviting true masters to perform with us. For example, we had a renowned saxophonist named Woods from Vancouver, who performed a concerto alongside us. He even played a piece that had never been performed in Canada before, making it a premiere right here in Calgary. It was an incredible and unforgettable experience.
In 2019, we had a remarkable performance in a warehouse adorned with antique Chinese furniture. Playing traditional Chinese pieces in such an authentically traditional setting was an unforgettable experience.
Bob: Both the audience and our musicians thoroughly enjoyed themselves, as the performance environment seamlessly complemented our musical pieces. Furthermore, our orchestra's artists took the time to demonstrate and explain various traditional Chinese instruments, providing our audience with a deeper understanding of traditional Chinese music from a unique perspective.
I'm thrilled to be a part of this orchestra and continue my career as a professional conductor in Canada.
We're always eager to know about upcoming performances. Can you give us a sneak peek into any exciting concerts or events the Calgary Chinese Orchestra has planned for the near future that our readers can look forward to attending?
Bob: Certainly, we have a seasonal schedule with at least two concerts each year. One is during Christmas, and the other takes place at the end of June. These two concerts are on our agenda for this year as well. The Christmas concert is scheduled to be held at the Calgary Central Library, while the June concert will take place at Mount Royal University auditorium.
Additionally, this year, we have something special in store for Chinese New Year. We've put together an exhilarating program that will cater to everyone's taste. You'll have the chance to relish not only classical Chinese music but also beloved Western classics such as opera Carmen and Mission Impossible soundtrack, all performed with our unique traditional instruments. We're looking forward to welcoming all of you!
Could you provide some insights into the unique environment within the orchestra? How do members collaborate and nurture their passion for Chinese music in Alberta?
Jeffrey: The main challenge we face in Calgary is that we don't have the sizeable Chinese community presence like you'd find in Toronto or Vancouver. Consequently, we can't be very selective about our members; whoever expresses an interest is always welcome.
Our orchestra boasts a diverse range of backgrounds. We have young children who began their musical journey in China and want to continue it here. We also have adults who played music in their youth, possibly in China, and are rekindling their passion here.
We also have adults who played music in their youth, possibly in China, and are rekindling their passion here. There are retirees looking to pick up a new hobby as well. Our members span a wide age spectrum, ranging from under 10 years old to over 60. We even have local individuals without a Chinese background who are simply curious and eager to explore this musical avenue. For example, I'm currently teaching a student majoring in engineering who was born here but is intrigued by Chinese music.
This diversity presents its own set of challenges, but it also allows us to explore beyond traditional Chinese pieces. As Bob mentioned earlier, we've reimagined movie soundtracks and even adapted Christmas music for performance with a Chinese orchestra. These unique challenges can be incredibly exciting when they work out.
In terms of our direction, we don't impose a strict agenda on the orchestra. We're open to members' suggestions and ideas. If someone wants to try something different or take on a new challenge, we welcome and encourage these creative initiatives.
Indeed, it's all about survival and adaptation. In a way, even the pandemic has had a silver lining for us. It's shown us how to collaborate remotely, which has opened up new possibilities. For instance, we've engaged in video projects with the Toronto Chinese Orchestra and collaborated online with DC Chinese artists. Typically, these collaborations happen around Chinese New Year, but it's something we hadn't really considered before the pandemic. Thanks to tools like Zoom, we're now able to explore these exciting opportunities.
What advantages and opportunities do Chinese musicians and artists in Alberta have, and how does the Calgary Chinese Orchestra enrich the local arts scene?
Bob: Certainly, aspiring musicians and artists here in Calgary have a unique advantage.
Unlike cities such as Vancouver or Toronto, where the Chinese audience is already substantial, Calgary offers a more diverse audience base. This means we must carefully consider our concert selections and themes to engage a broader audience.
Our goal is to reach more people and introduce them to our culture. As a professional conductor, I've had the opportunity to explore creative avenues, such as composition and adaptation.
Everyone can join in and enjoy traditional Chinese music, and we can use it to perform familiar Western pieces. For instance, we can use Chinese instruments to play well-known Western music or opera pieces, even popular Western movie soundtracks.
As we like to inspire our readers, could you share some words of advice or encouragement for aspiring musicians and artists, especially those who may be interested in exploring Chinese music and culture through their creative endeavors?
Bob: My passion lies in sharing Chinese culture and art with people from various backgrounds. In my experience, Canada is a diverse and inclusive country, providing an excellent environment for aspiring artists to pursue their dreams.
Opportunities abound, and there are large stages for you to showcase your skills and creativity. I encourage young musicians to actively seek out and seize these opportunities.
All you need is creativity and persistence to embark on and continue your artistic journey.
The first step may be the toughest, but remember to keep moving forward and never stop. That's the key to success.
Jeffrey: Absolutely, I'd like to encourage anyone who's interested or even just curious about what we do not to hesitate but come forward and say hello. Reach out to us, because many people hold back, perhaps thinking they might not be good enough.
However, you'll never truly know unless you give it a shot, right? For me, it's been a guiding principle all these years that our doors are always open to anyone who wants to play. I've always believed in that.
What brings me the greatest joy isn't how well someone can initially play, but how much they can grow with practice and dedication over time. Besides making music, the purpose of the Chinese orchestra is to have fun together.
So, even if you're just curious, I encourage you to stop by and discover what we're all about. We can have a great time together, play music together, learn together, and grow together. That sense of camaraderie and shared passion is truly what makes this journey fulfilling.
In conclusion, I'd like to echo a sentiment that may sound cliché, but it's a belief I hold dear. I've encountered numerous individuals who initially felt they weren't good enough, and that self-doubt can be all too accurate.
However, it's important to remember that greatness often begins with that first, courageous step. So, please, don't be afraid. As I've mentioned before, our doors are always open to those who want to play, those who want to learn, and anyone who is curious.
Taking that initial step, embracing your passion, and sharing in the joy of music and culture can be a truly transformative experience. So, seize the opportunity, and let your artistic journey begin.
Calgary Chinese Orchestra