Ping-pong plays NY Philharmonic
It was the first time a pingpong table had taken center stage at the David Geffen Hall in New York, as two US national table tennis champions played each other live as part of the New York Philharmonic’s Chinese Lunar New Year annual concert at the Lincoln Center on Feb 20.
Ariel Hsing and Michael Landers, the youngest-ever US women’s singles champion and US men’s singles champion respectively, were featured as the ping-pong playing soloists in Andy Akiho’s energetic concerto, Ricochet, Concerto for Ping Pong, Violin, Percussion, and Orchestra, under the baton of Chinese conductor Yu Long.
The performance uses the sounds from an intense table tennis match alongside a full symphony orchestra, which saw the ping-pong players elevated at the back of the stage, like opera singers performing above an orchestra pit.
“So it’s interesting because when you were actually playing ping-pong, you can’t really look at the conductor obviously, but a lots of the starts we looked at him and then the stops we kind of listened to the music,” Hsing said.
“I love the natural and unpredictable rhythmic pulses that the ping-pong rallies create, and I wanted to marry them with the orchestral world where unlimited timbral combinations could coexist,” Akiho told China Daily.
“We’ve never done anything with ping-pong before,” says Bill Thomas, the executive director of the New York Philharmonic. “We’re doing the piece because it’s Lunar New Year and we want to do something new as a way to think about the future.”
The appearance of the work in a program of music from China — home to some of the world’s greatest table tennis players and the global hub for Lunar New Year celebrations — also evokes China’s ping-pong diplomacy of the 1970s, with the violin serving as an intermediary between the percussive soloists and the orchestra.
“The piece originally had its world premiere in Shanghai and the soloist who performed it serves as the connection to the Philharmonic — our violinist Elizabeth Zeltser,” said Thomas. “We kind of knew this would be interesting and then we had the idea of performing it in New York as part of our Chinese New Year Celebration.”
“Tonight’s concert, of course, has Chinese characteristics, because this is what we planned to do,” says Shirley Young, governor of the Committee of 100 and chair of the US- China Cultural Institute. “The content of the concert is to give American audiences a little taste of Chinese culture.”
“The concerto is related to Chinese culture and history, and the soloists are two champion ping-pong players, together with other soloists with the Philharmonic,” says Young. “So, this concert is obviously not a normal concert, it’s definitely a great New York Philharmonic concert but with Chinese characteristics.”
The performance also featured the Spring Festival Overture, a cheerful Chinese orchestral work composed by Li Huanzhi in the 1950s, Beethoven’s grand Choral Fantasy by 13-year-old pianist Serena Wang and the Farmers’ Chorus from Yunnan province, in their first appearance outside of China.
“They are real farmers, and 50 of them have come all the way from Yunnan to perform for us,” says Young.
Zhou Wei contributed to this story.
With temperatures pushing 80 degrees on a winter day, American University students Emilee Eastman (left) and Ava Schulte enjoy a picnic lunch on the National Mall near the US Capitol in Washington on Wednesday.