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Rats! It’s Chinese New Year

Celebrate the Rodent of Honor at festive events this weekend.

The rat isn’t just the first animal in the 12-year cycle of the Chinese lunar calendar. It’s also the most respected, the liveliest and, significantly, the most genial.

In many ways, it’s emblematic of how accessible, and rich, Bainbridge Island’s Chinese New Year celebration has become. And the festival’s evolution has been a conscious one on the part of its organizers.

The first year, co-organizer Harriet Davis pointed out, consisted only of a Sunday afternoon parade through Winslow. Last year saw the addition of more cultural events stretched over more than a day. This year brings a weekend-long celebration that will include film, music and arts, culminating in Sunday’s parade.

“We want to try and point out to the public that there are traditions,” Davis said. “But the driving force behind the whole thing, in my mind, is that there are a lot of people of Chinese ancestry, there are parents of adopted Chinese children who want there to be some connection to China. It’s part of their heritage.”

On Saturday, the Seattle Chinese Orchestra will play a program of Chinese music at Woodward Middle School.

Conductor Roger Nelson says the program may feel more familiar to Western lay audiences than they might think.

“The music is folk style, mostly, and very tuneful – the tuning is the same as we have in the West,” Nelson said. “The harmonies are very standard, and there’s nothing too outlandish or too demanding on the listener.”

From 1987 to 2000, Nelson made a reverse commute to Bainbridge from his home in North Seattle as conductor of the Bainbridge Symphony Orchestra.

But his interest in Chinese music began a generation ago when Warren Chang, new to Seattle and to the country, called Cornish College of the Arts to try to establish musical connections.

“Serendipitously, I was answering the phone at Cornish, where I worked in 1979,” Nelson said. “He just wanted to make some contacts. He was looking for someone to play piano for him, and I answered the phone.”

Chang and Nelson embarked on music careers that continually dove-tailed. Chang formed the Seattle Chinese Orchestra – the only traditional Chinese orchestra in the Pacific Northwest – and its umbrella organization, the Seattle-based Chinese Music and Arts Association.

He also made a name as a master of the er-hu, the Chinese two-string fiddle that Nelson calls fascinating, peculiar and human-sounding.

Nelson, meanwhile, became the first foreign music teacher to teach at Qufu University, in China’s Shandong Province. There, he established an orchestra that performed Haydn – albeit with a smattering of Chinese traditional instruments.

The Seattle Chinese Orchestra’s repertoire spans a range of styles, from traditional to folk to the work of contemporary Chinese composers to Western music played with Chinese instruments, a la Nelson’s Haydn performance.

“We’re happy to come to Bainbridge and perform here,” Nelson said. “It’s a rich trove of music that isn’t heard that much, certainly outside of China.”

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Happy New Year

Bainbridge Island’s third annual Chinese New Year celebration runs Feb. 7-10 at venues around the island.

Feb. 7: A screening of Ang Lee’s “The Wedding Banquet” will be held at 7 p.m. at Bainbridge Cinemas at the Pavilion. This witty movie was nominated for an Academy Award for best foreign film.

Feb. 9: The Seattle Chinese Orchestra will perform at 7 p.m. at Woodward Middle School, with featured soloist Warren Chang and conductor Roger Nelson. East meets West as traditional Chinese woodwind instruments and the er-hu combine with western instruments to create spectacular and memorable music. Admission is $5 at the door; children free.

Feb. 10: Food and culture booths open at 11 a.m. in Winslow. Mayor Darlene Kordonowy will light firecrackers at noon to signal the Lion Dancers, who will lead the parade through town. The parade will feature traditional Chinese costumes, a pair of Princesses, the Tao-Zan kung-fu team, bicycles, pets and others. Pets welcome, particularly rodents.

Food booths in front of the Town & Country Market will feature traditional Chinese dishes and tea. Cultural booths will include Chinese calligraphy, fortune telling, a tea ceremony, information on past and current Chinese history and others. Traditional Chinese lanterns, dragons and firecracker strings will be available for sale.

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