For hundreds of the South Bay’s young Chinese Americans, reconnecting to their cultural heritage happens through the Firebird Youth Chinese Orchestra (FYCO). Founded in 2000 by Gordon Lee, the FYCO originally attracted only 13 young musicians. Today it boasts more than 100 youngsters, ranging in age from 9 to 17 years old, who come together once a week to practice on instruments whose origins date back thousands of years.
Lee and his core of musicians formed the orchestra after the successful premiere performance in Cupertino of one of Lee’s compositions, a work based on the Disney movie Mulan. Spark takes viewers behind the scenes with the Firebird Youth Chinese Orchestra as they prepare the classic folk piece “The General’s Command” for a concert at the San Jose Center for the Performing Arts in 2009.
Although the instruments they play — the lute-like pipa, the ancient moon-shaped ruan, the two-stringed fiddle called an erhu, the seven-string zither called a guqin and the hammered yanqin, among many others — date as far back as 200 B.C., the concept of a large orchestra of Chinese instruments is relatively modern. China’s first modern orchestra was founded in 1935 in Nanjing by Jilue Chen, one of Lee’s own teachers. In 2004, by invitation of the People’s Republic of China, the FYCO traveled to Beijing, Chengdu and Shanghai to perform at three of the country’s most prestigious music conservatories, becoming the first Chinese orchestra from the West to perform in China.
The Beijing-born Lee, whose love for traditional Chinese music was not dimmed by “reeducation” during the Cultural Revolution, began learning to play the pipa at age 13 and studied under Chen at the Sichuan National Conservatory. After emigrating to the United States in 1989, Lee earned an M.A. from San Jose State University in 1995, and since 2002, he has been on the faculty of San Jose City College, where the FYCO also offers music lessons for Chinese instruments. The composer and conductor, who creates his own arrangements of traditional Chinese works for the FYCO, has also fostered collaborations for the orchestra with other performing groups, including the Shaolin monks, who appeared with the orchestra in March 2009.