When artistic director Gordon Lee founded the Firebird Youth Chinese Orchestra with 13 young musicians in 2000, the event barely registered a blip on San Jose's cultural radar. But in just four years, the orchestra has become one of the most dynamic cultural groups in the South Bay.
Made up mostly of
American-born children of Chinese ancestry, Firebird
initially performed for free at cultural centers and
libraries around the Bay Area.
greatest measure of its growth spurt will be its
visit next month to China, where it will become the
first Western-based Chinese orchestra to perform in
Tonight at the San
Jose City College Theater, local audiences can get a
sneak preview of the program being presented June
17-26 in Beijing, Chengdu and Shanghai.
Firebird owes its
progress, in part, to dedicated parents and
students, a deal on performance and rehearsal space
at City College, and perhaps the novelty of a
Chinese orchestra in the South Bay.
But the main credit
for its success goes to Lee, 52, an instructor of
Chinese music at the college and a former protege of
Chen Jilue, the father of the modern Chinese
orchestra. Lee, who came here from China in 1989 as
Xie Tan, is an accomplished performer and masterful
teacher on numerous Chinese instruments.
professionals who have emigrated, Lee initially
worked at menial jobs such as cleaning houses and
busing tables, in spite of an impressive résumé that
included membership in the China Pingju Opera
Theater in Beijing in 1978.
He revived his
musical career in the mid-'90s as a student at San
Jose State University, before establishing the
Eastern Music Center in San Jose in 1996. This
training ground for students of Chinese instruments
became a prototype for Firebird, which today has
three tiers totaling 120 student musicians. Most are
Chinese-Americans from 7 to 16 years old. Aside from
the three adult musicians joining them, the Firebird
http://www.fyco.org/members/ performing in China will be students between
10 and 16.
"I'm the teacher,
but they are the foundation," Lee says
includes four sections of musicians playing such
instruments as the lute-like pipa, the
two-stringed violin known as the erhu and the
bamboo flute called the dizi.
The often lush and
dreamy arrangements, reminiscent of soundtrack music
from period films produced in China over the last
decade, charms audiences with a range of epic
sweeping sounds and intimate instrumental passages.
Along with traditional Chinese compositions, the
orchestra has performed the theme to Disney's "Mulan"
and an adaptation of the Glenn Miller hit "In the
Parents are pivotal
One of Lee's
greatest strengths has been a sense of when to take
on a challenge and when to enlist someone else for
the job, whether writing grant applications or
teaching the nuances of the erhu. The support
of parents, he repeatedly insists, has been vital to
the success of the venture.
At a recent
Saturday night rehearsal, three dozen parents
gathered with their children for a potluck dinner.
At this cross between a church social and a study
session, the mothers and fathers enjoyed a
traditional Chinese meal and then received an update
from Lee about upcoming rehearsals and tasks for
various parent committees. Then the adults slipped
into desks at the rear of the rehearsal hall to read
Chinese papers and listen while Lee led the
With baton in hand,
he launched the group of about 20 musicians into a
song but abruptly stopped them, pointing to the
said, "but just a little bit larger."
York Wu, 14, a
student at Lynbrook High School who plays the
trumpet-like suona, joined the orchestra in
2002 partly because his family, who had immigrated
from Nanjing, thought the experience would help him
stay connected to his cultural heritage.
"It's not every day
you find someone as dedicated as Gordon," said Wu,
"and I feel like I'm part of something that's
greater than myself."
At a time when arts
funding from foundations has mostly dried up,
Firebird has consistently landed grants. This month,
the National Endowment for the Arts awarded the
group $26,000 for education, and the John S. and
James L. Knight Foundation, through Arts Council
Silicon Valley, awarded $10,000 for music
"What Gordon Lee
has been able to assemble is unparalleled," says
Diem Jones, director of the grants programs for Arts
Council Silicon Valley. "There is no model for them
to follow. The results have been astounding, and not
only on a community level. You can see they're ready
to go global."
The China tour has
special meaning for Lee: It will be his first trip
home since leaving 15 years ago. But Kevin T. Frey,
a City College professor of music and humanities and
a horn soloist for the orchestra, says Lee, though
excited, isn't inclined to call attention to his
"I think he's going
back as a hero," Frey says. "He's not going back to
prove something, but if he had something to prove,
it's that this music is wonderful and beautiful,
and it can be intercultural. For him, it's just
another step along the way toward something even
bigger and greater, which is the music itself."