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January 20, 2006

Singing back the years

San Jose Mercury News (CA):

They are engineers, financial advisers and retirees who came together simply for a shared love of singing and fellowship. And in typical Bay Area fashion, became something much more. In many ways, the Zhi Yin Chorus is like any number of amateur vocal groups with a collective passion for music. But this 60-member group, which happens to be made up predominantly of performers of Chinese descent, draws from a cross-cultural repertoire -- everything from syrupy Broadway show tunes to Chinese folk songs about fighting Japanese invaders in World War II.

Zhi Yin, which means "best friend'' in Chinese, was founded by conductor and music director Bainian Tan in Danville in 1997. Aspiring singers -- many with little more experience than membership in youth singing groups in their native Taiwan and China -- signed up mostly to expand their knowledge of choral music. It was OK then, and it's OK now, says Tan. "I still think it's a service for the people. They play, they learn music and singing technique. They have fun.''

They also inspire crowds in ways even they could not have anticipated. At a June 2005 concert before 2,500 rapt audience members at the Center for the Performing Arts in San Jose, Zhi Yin performed such Chinese folk songs as "The Yellow River Cantata.'' The concert, which commemorated the 60th anniversary of the end of World War II, included music that celebrated the defense of the Yellow River. "And the audience was just so moved because they hadn't heard any Chinese cultural songs for so long,'' says soprano Sarah Huang, 52, a financial adviser from Danville. "Especially the older Chinese people. They were in tears. The music speaks out.''

Participating in Zhi Yin also has also inspired its singers, says Madeleine Lee, a Zhi Yin soprano and CEO of an electronics firm in Sunnyvale. The chorus, she says, reminds the older members of seasoned musical favorites while exposing their children and grandchildren to a legacy obscured by time and assimilation. "That's the only way I get exposure to the Chinese music,'' Lee says. "My kids speak English, so we don't have any connection otherwise.''

Zhi Yin performs a quirky mix of songs that also includes selections from "Cats'' and the Andrew Lloyd Webber songbook as well as a Chinese version of "Blue Danube.'' Tan selects Chinese anthems and folks songs that hail from various corners of his homeland, making him something of a musicological tour guide. He tries to give the chorus an elaborate explanation about the history of the song, the region it comes from and the Chinese dialect in which it was written.

Tan, a tenor and former member of the Shanghai Philharmonic, has often enlisted students he has taught in private. As the group has grown, coalesced and added everyone from college students to scientists from Lawrence Livermore Lab, Tan has never lost sight of the musical zeal of the performers and its audience. "I'm not surprised,'' Tan says. "These people need music. And life with music is wonderful.''

Posted by acapnews at January 20, 2006 12:26 AM