East-West Pop Culture Nexus

Chinese-American superstar singer and actor Wang Leehom '99 performs with a Berklee student orchestra before a full house at Boston's Symphony Hall on November 13, 2016.

On Sunday, November 13, 2016, Boston’s Symphony Hall was packed for a special celebration of the multifaceted career of Chinese-American superstar Wang Leehom ’99. An icon of Chinese popular culture, Leehom has wooed a massive worldwide Chinese audience with his blend of pop, rock, jazz, classical, hip-hop, and traditional Chinese music. The artist has released 16 studio albums that have sold many millions of copies and his concerts routinely fill 50,000-seat stadiums in China and other Asian nations. For the young, predominantly Asian audience filling the 2,400 seats of Symphony Hall, this was a rare opportunity to get a close-up view of the celebrated “King of Chinese pop.”

The son of Taiwanese immigrant parents, Leehom grew up in Rochester, New York, and graduated from Williams College in Williamstown, Massachusetts, before attending Berklee. Since making his first record in 1999, Leehom’s subsequent albums have won numerous Chinese music awards, including multiple Golden Melody Awards, the equivalent of the Grammy Award in Taiwan. He has also been cast in 14 movies including Lust, Caution (directed by Ang Lee), Little Big Soldier (costarring with Jackie Chan) and Love in Disguise, in which Leehom both directed and starred. 

Opening the November 13 concert was the 25-member JAG Drum Ensemble led by Joe Galeota, associate professor, performing “Wo Wang” with 19 BianGu drummers and six cymbal players. An ensemble featuring 10 vocalists and 35 instrumentalists that included a small orchestra as well as rhythm section players warmed up the crowd with a handful of Leehom’s original pop and R&B ballads. Singing in Mandarin, vocalists Alexander Hong, Elise Go, and Enya Lim put the songs across with passion and flair. Among the notable moments were Lim’s soaring falsetto on the end of “You’re Not Here,” and Go’s switching between English and Chinese mid-song for the rap section of “Follow Me.”

The centerpiece of the concert was the presentation of a Berklee honorary doctor of music to Leehom by Berklee President Roger H. Brown and Larry Simpson, senior vice president for academic affairs/provost. Introducing Leehom, Brown stated, “In the entertainment world, someone who can sing, dance, and act at a very high level is referred to as a ‘triple threat.’ Our honoree is more like an octuple threat. He sings beautifully, produces with remarkable skill, and writes poignant lyrics. He is a master musician on more than 10 instruments.”

(Left) Larry Simpson, senior vice president for academic affairs/provost, and Berklee President Roger H. Brown (right) present an honorary doctorate of music to Wang Leehom.

Luminaries sent in tributes for the occasion, including Tony Bennett, with whom Leehom recorded a duet version of “If I Ruled the World.” Film director Ang Lee stated, “His work ethic is like [that] of a bull, [he’s] one of the best I’ve worked with.” Brown went on to cite Leehom for his humanitarian efforts sponsoring children and aiding Taiwan disaster relief efforts, and called him a cultural ambassador who “is building bridges of understanding that we need now more than ever.”

Accepting the degree, Leehom said, “I am humbled and honored to be here. What a time for East and West in music and pop culture. I have never written a song without loving it myself. To all of you musicians, I say always follow your heart and do what you love.”

Leehom then took center stage and demonstrated his prowess as a songwriter, singer, and multi-instrumentalist. Highlights included his folk ballad “Big City, Small Love,” on which he accompanied himself on acoustic guitar, before going to the piano for “A Simple Song.” In a striking contrast, he played the quasi-classical solo violin intro with orchestral accompaniment on his song  “Falling Leaf Returns to Roots,” which was featured in the Ang Lee film Lust, Caution. “Open Fire,” was an energetic rocker that served as the theme song from Leehom’s latest tour. After bows by all of the concert performers, the audience delivered a lengthy standing ovation. Many audience members flocked to the stage to touch hands with Leehom, a sight not often seen at Symphony Hall.

The proceeds of the concert will go toward establishing a full scholarship in the name of Wang Leehom to be awarded in 2017 in China to a Chinese student. Leehom told the audience, “I’m going to be there for that!”