My Fulbright Year in Taiwan

By Chen, Chelsea | The American Organist, February 2009 | Go to article overview

My Fulbright Year in Taiwan


Chen, Chelsea, The American Organist


ABOUT SIX YEARS ago, I stood facing the Spreckels Organ Pavilion in San Diego, contemplating my upcoming concert. What could I play on this iconic outdoor organ? My mind kept drifting back to the previous month I had spent in Taiwan. How could I musically capture my experience in that dynamic place? I thought of the street festivals where I had heard amateur singers crooning old pentatonic folk songs in front of delighted locals, both young and old. An idea occurred to me: why not arrange Taiwanese folk songs for the organ? The Spreckels organ with its battery of specialty stops would be ideal for this kind of music. Nine months later, I was performing my first piece, Taiwanese Suite (2003), in front of an enthusiastic hometown crowd.

Around the same time, a dear composer friend at the Juilliard School, Yui Kitamura, was beginning to arrange Japanese folk songs for instruments, including organ, harp, strings, clarinet, flute, and percussion. She hosted chamber music concerts at Juilliard featuring her arrangements, and invited scores of her Japanese friends from New York City to attend. Seeing their joyous faces upon hearing these melodies further convinced me to pursue this project.

In 2004, I met distinguished concert organist and professor John Walker. Dr. Walker taught and performed in Taiwan on a FuIbright scholarship in 1999, and regularly returns for concerts and masterclasses. With his help and encouragement, I was able to visit some of the pipe organs in Taipei and Tainan during a weeklong trip in 2005. 1 was amazed to find German, Dutch, and American instruments (Klais, Flentrop, Pels & van Leeuwen, Kilgen, Hook & Hastings, among others) hidden in various churches, seminaries, universities, and concert halls. I knew immediately that I wanted to spend more time in Taiwan exploring, performing, arranging folk songs, and improving my Chinese (I had spoken Mandarin as a child with my grandmother). My teachers and advisers encouraged me wholeheartedly to apply for a Fulbright.

And so, in the fall of 2006, 1 found myself moving into an apartment next to National Taiwan Normal University (NTNU) in Taipei. The location proved to be ideal, as it was near the university and several churches. I took Mandarin classes at NTNU, practiced at the Bread of Life church, and ate at the university "night market." My Chinese improved immensely as I interacted with my housemates and friends at school. After three months I was comfortable enough to deliver program notes in Chinese at my first concert. It was there that I got to know organist Lynn Kuo, also a friend of Dr. Walker's from her days at the Manhattan School of Music. She later organized concerts for me at Grace Baptist Church in which her husband, Daniel Chiang, concertmaster of the Taipei Symphony, performed in my folk song arrangements.

In October, I had the opportunity to attend a "Double Ten" party (held yearly on October 10) - a national celebration of the foundation of the Republic of China in 1911. Every year, the Taiwanese government holds a lavish reception at the Taipei Guest House for its foreign dignitaries and scholars, and invites its best troupe of dancers and musicians to perform. On my camera I was able to capture some of the virtuoso players performing folk songs on the guzheng (zither), erhu (two-stringed instrument), and pipa (lute). After hearing them play so beautifully, I signed up for guzheng classes at NTNU and learned to play two folk songs. One of them, "Cradle Song," became part of my solo organ piece entitled Taiwan Tableaux.

I must admit that one of the best aspects about living in Taipei was exploring the neighborhood's "night market" - so-called for its boisterous activity - where I could eat three meals for less than eight dollars! By eating there every day I got to know the local shopkeepers, who were fascinated by my half-Chinese heritage and ability to speak Chinese. Amazingly, they would remember my name and food preferences to the detail after just a couple of meetings.

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