I met with Phong on a chilly afternoon in November in advance of his upcoming solo with The Chelsea Symphony - luckily, his warm smile brightened up the grayness of the day. One might consider his smile just a part of his sunny character - but it should also be noted that he isn't just a violinist, he's a violinist dentist anesthesiologist. Probably the only violinist dentist anesthesiologist I know, in fact.
The parallel paths of Phong have been running for some time. While on a music scholarship at Lehigh University, Phong's major was in biology. He thought he would go into research but realized that his interests lay more on the people side of the medical field. After academic studies and residencies in Baltimore and San Francisco, Phong came to New York City in 2007 for his anesthesia residency at Mount Sinai on the Upper East Side. Although he'd played consistently during university, it wasn't until this residency ended that he began to seriously perform again; he found not just one but two musical homes in Chelsea - with TCS and as the concertmaster of QUO, the Queer Urban Orchestra, a position he's been serving since 2009.
Phong has been a valued member of The Chelsea Symphony since the orchestra's seventh season. His first concert was in September 2012 during which the featured piece was Shostakovich's Ninth Symphony. This piece, Phong says, was on his bucket list and is indicative of why Phong keeps returning to play with TCS. "The programming is a good mix, and every concert is a different group of people. It's been great to meet so many people from many walks of life who fit music into their lives at a high caliber."
TCS is a different kind of symphony. Members of the orchestra, a volunteer organization, are also its conductors, composers, administrators, and soloists. The benefit of performing a solo is granted to members who have amassed a prescribed number of services, TCS's way of both featuring our accomplished musicians in a role often slotted for guests in other ensembles and giving back to those who have given so much to the group with their time and talents. Although he says the solo is a good opportunity, it's not the solo benefit that keeps Phong coming back to play with TCS for our concert series services. "It's not something you get to do very often, so I thought I would take advantage of it," Phong noted with a chuckle.
The Butterfly Lovers Violin Concerto is one of the most well-known pieces of classical music from China, even today. Written in 1959 just a few years before the Cultural Revolution, it fell out of favor until after the 1970s, when the restrictions on Western music - or anything resembling or seeming to uphold Western ideals - relaxed. Although it was censored by the government, it is heavily influenced by the melodies and mores of Chinese opera. Listen for the opening melody of the solo violin, based on a Chinese folk song about the Huanghe (Yellow) River, and percussive accompaniment straight out of Peking opera traditions that accompany a recitative-like section.
Phong first encountered this piece while in middle school. Having started playing violin at eight years old through his school program, he heard about this piece from his parents when he was young. While in Chinatown one day, he bought a random CD with violin music that contained a recording of The Butterfly Lovers. When a friend of his had the sheet music, brought to her by her grandmother from Taiwan, Phong quite literally seized the opportunity to learn the piece - and the sheet music - from his friend. (Ed. note: no charges were brought against young Phong for absconding with the music.)
While preparing for the piece, Phong listened to quite a lot of Chinese opera and will be using techniques to emulate the vocal lines of the singers. "Now that I know where it comes from, I understand the connection. I think it really informs the performance."
Catch a sneak peek of The Butterfly Lovers Violin Concerto (performed by Gil Shaham):
See you on Friday at 8p for Phong Ta performing The Butterfly Lovers Violin Concerto!