SANFORD - As their fingers danced nimbly across the strings, it was easy to forget that many of the 20 musicians on stage were barely old enough for middle school.
All were part of the Xiangyang Youth Philharmonic Orchestra, an ensemble from China that performed a free concert on Aug. 11 at the Dennis A. Wicker Civic Center. Their two-week, United States tour also included stops in New York City, Washington, Los Angeles and Raleigh.
The concert was part of an ongoing series of Chinese cultural performances and exhibitions organized through the Confucius Classroom at Central Carolina Community College. The Classroom is an educational partnership with North Carolina State University's Confucius Institute and Nanjing Normal University in China offering Chinese language courses and working to bring performing groups to local audiences.
And this audience -- a full house in the civic center's auditorium -- was dazzled by what they saw. Musicians wearing black concert attire and framed by two vertical strings of large Chinese lanterns began with a Kazak folk song performed by the full orchestra. Mixed into the half-hour program were other Chinese orchestral selections, some clearly influenced by western forms; one performance on the guzheng, a large, Chinese zither; and even a ballet solo by the tiniest artist on stage.
As with many cultural exchanges, the evening ended with a gift. Sanford Mayor Pro Tem Sam Gaskins presented orchestra conductor Deng Xuefeng with a ceremonial key to the city, inviting him to return at any time.
In the center of the auditorium was one row packed with local musicians -- among them, Karen Huey, principal violist for the Lee County Community Orchestra, and Mike Wallick, a violinist and retired orchestra director from Ohio who relocated to Broadway.
After the young Chinese musicians took their final bow, both of the locals gave an enthusiastic thumbs-up to what just unfolded on stage. "They played very well; it's obvious they're getting good instruction," said Wallick, who commended the musicians' spirit and discipline. "A very impressive performance."
Huey agreed and added how much she appreciated not only this concert, but all the Confucius Classroom has contributed to the community. "The Confucius Classroom has allowed so many opportunities to experience Chinese culture," she said, citing some exchange trips civic delegations have conducted with Sanford's sister city of Yixing. "It's just wonderful to see the cultural exchange."
Formed just three years ago, the youth ensemble is affiliated with the Xiangyang Philharmonic Orchestra and based in that ancient city of 5.5 million residents about an 11-hour drive west of Shanghai. Also known as the "Children's Cohort," the orchestra was established as a "cradle" to nurture young musicians, ages 8 to 12, who receive professional training and perform a repertoire that includes Chinese music and compositions from around the world.
Yuehan Ma, a native of Xi'an in northwest China and instructor for CCCC's Confucius Classroom, would have been happy to hear Huey's enthusiasm for cultural exchanges like this, because Ma believes they offer an important opportunity for Americans and Chinese people to learn more about each other.
"Cultural exchanges are like bridges to connect two different cities, cultures across the ocean, together," said Ma. "It is a chance for people to know the differences and similarities between them."
For more information on Central Carolina Community College's Confucius Classroom, visit www.cccc.edu/confucius.
The Xiangyang Youth Philharmonic Orchestra performed a free concert on Aug. 11 at the Dennis A. Wicker Civic Center. Their two-week, United States tour also included stops in New York City, Washington, Los Angeles and Raleigh.
Sanford Mayor Pro Tem Sam Gaskins (center, back row) is pictured with members of the Xiangyang Youth Philharmonic Orchestra.
Members of the Xiangyang Youth Philharmonic Orchestra perform at the Dennis A. Wicker Civic Center in Sanford.