“Autumn Flight” celebrates community in historic Chinatown

By celebrating Vancouver's feathered neighbours, composer Alan Lau has written a new piece of music that celebrates diverse human communities living in Vancouver as well. 

The Vancouver Chinese Music Ensemble. Photo courtesy of Mark Montgomery
The Vancouver Chinese Music Ensemble welcomes autumn with music. Photo courtesy of Mark Montgomery

The Vancouver Chinese Music Ensemble ventures into Dr. Sun Yat-Sen Classical Chinese Garden to remind us of a very old culture that’s been going about its business here in Vancouver almost longer than anyone can remember. That culture is of course the birds that fill our skies, parks, and waterways.

Composer Alan Lau has written a new piece of music to celebrate our feathered neighbours and in celebrating this "bird-scape" community, he has brought together many human communities as well. His new piece, Autumn Flight, uses aerial video he shot himself along with traditional shadow puppets to tell the story of the indomitable Canada goose, the humble pigeon, the freedom-loving sea gull, the mischievous raven, and the protagonist of the story—the free-range chicken. It’s a simple tale made compelling by the excellent Vancouver Chinese Music Ensemble, virtuosos of instruments not well understood (or even heard) by many music listeners.

Autumn Flight consisted of an overture entitled “Dance of the Free-Range Chicken”, played on an antique xylophone on loan from the Chinese Cultural Centre Museum. The subsequent movements follow the journey of Free-Range Chicken on his quest to become a phoenix. As he travels around Vancouver, he meets “Goose, the nature-loving traveller” with accompanying aerial footage video taken above Vancouver (but with traditional music from the Chaozhou region in southern China). Chicken then meets “Pigeon, the city dweller”, represented by Erhu (Chinese fiddle), “Seagull, the free aviator”, and “Raven, the family caring member”.

Alan Lau’s Autumn Flight may have seemed a little chaotic and at times overambitious (the multimedia sometimes awkwardly out of synch with the music), but amid the friendly chaos of Chinese seniors, inquisitive music lovers, and squirmy youngsters, nobody seemed to mind. Everyone had come together to experience something curious and new. I sat behind an elderly Chinese woman with her two grandchildren—the little girl listened attentively; the little boy slept soundly. But when 10-year-old violinist Jaiden Christie played Lau’s variations on a traditional Chinese melody to present raven, the Chinese seniors sat up and sang along with him.

The Vancouver Chinese Music Ensemble with Jaiden Christie playing the song of the raven. Photo courtesy of Mark Montgomery

After some particularly beautiful playing by Ji Rong Huang, erhu (Chinese violin), Sarah Yusha Tan on guzheng (Chinese zither), and Ling Yang on pipa (Chinese lute) and it seemed that the concert might be ended, Zhong Xi Wu (who'd up till then had looked rather glum) suddenly jumped up and performed a tour-de-force medley of Chinese melodies on various wind instruments (including the oboe-like guanzi) to the delight of the audience.  

The Vancouver Chinese Music Ensemble’s performance of Alan Lau’s Autumn Flight is a celebration of the enduring community that is Chinatown.

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