Many years ago, long before we became devoted to opera, we had a passion for Chinese opera. We spent many evenings at the Chinese American Cultural Center on Sixth Avenue, enjoying every type—from the most classical to the most rustic. We loved the stories and the sound of Mandarin, a language with tones that sounds sung even when spoken. But we knew nothing of Chinese instrumental music.
Last night, acclaimed Chinese musician/educator/professor Yuan Sha presented an evening of traditional and modern music played upon the guzheng, accompanied by other instruments. The performance/lecture was arranged by the Bureau for External Relations of the Ministry of Culture of the People's Republic of China and presented by the China Arts and Entertainment Group.
The program was entitled "Zheng and Poem--a Tour of Chinese Music Culture" and is touring around the country. The stated purpose of this lecture/performance was to advance appreciation of this art form and to demonstrate the shared values of Chinese and American people. Music surely transcends politics!
The guzheng is an instrument made of wood, over 5 feet long, and bearing 16-25 strings which are plucked and supported by moveable bridges; it is tuned to a pentatonic scale. It inspired similar instruments throughout Asia, the most notable being the Japanese koto. The closest Western instruments might be considered the zither and the harp. But it has a sound all its own and what a wonderful sound it is--both exotic and accessible. The artists we heard established an intense vibrato to the point of bending the tone. Tremolos are frequent as well as harp-like passionate runs. It would be an understatement to say that we were enthralled.
Each one of the selections had its own special character but all were marked by the consummate artistry of the musicians who, with typical Chinese modesty, were not identified for each piece but were shown biographically in the back of the program.
Playing the guzheng were Ms. Sha herself and two other wonderful artists, her students Bai Yang and Cen Jiawei. Accompaniment was provided by pianist Zhang Zhengchen, flutist Ai Hongbo, and percussionist Wu Hao who contributed some complex rhythms. . Further contributions were made by three Juilliard students--violinist Sumire Hirotsuru, cellist Sebastian Stoger, and harpist Deanna Cirielli who played a splendid duet with Ms. Sha.
One piece, "Travel in the Desert", from the period of the Tang Dynasty, showed the influence of the Arab world when the Silk Road brought in foreign influences. Other pieces were based on love, longing, nostalgia, nature, sorrow, and patriotism.
Guzheng music fell out of favor for a time but was kept alive and passed down from one generation to the next, to be revived in 1949 when The People's Republic was established. At present it is showing the influence of contemporary Western music but, true to form, we prefer the classical!
We were delighted to learn that Juilliard is collaborating with Tian Jin Conservatory to establish a graduate school, scheduled to open in 2019.
We feel privileged to have experienced this valuable cross-cultural event!
(c) meche kroop
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