We are here to encourage the development of gifted young singers and to stimulate the growth of New York City's invaluable chamber opera companies. But we will not neglect the Metropolitan Opera either. Get ready for bouquets and brickbats.

Monday, March 19, 2018


Huayin Shadow Puppet Band from Shaanxi Province China

China's ancient musical traditions are in danger of being lost--but not if pipa virtuoso Wu Man has anything to say about it!

In our country there are musicians whose names are familiar to just about everyone and we'd like to think that this lovely and talented woman is similarly famous in China. Her participation in Yo-Yo Ma's Silk Road Ensemble and  the documentary film The Music of Strangers have made her famous. We were so happy to be exposed to her gifts Saturday night at the Society for Ethical Culture, as well as the unusual performance of the Huayin Shadow Puppet Band, presented by the World Music Institute (www.worldmusicinstitute.org).

The pipa is a lute like instrument which was customarily plucked with fingers when the strings were made of silk; but presently, in concert halls, the steel strings are plucked with plastic finger picks, one on each finger of the right hand whilst the fingers of the left hand depress the strings onto the sounding board.  Ms. Man's right hand moved so rapidly that we were reminded of nothing more than the wings of a hummingbird. At times we thought of the player of flamenco guitar creating rasgueados.

It is worthwhile to see her artistry up close on You Tube...https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Rg_iZhUlyRE

If the amplification of Ms. Man's voice had been better we would have loved to tell you the details she shared about the instrument, but only those in the center section of the hall seemed to hear and laugh along with her good humor. We only picked up a few words, so we can only tell you that the music, which there was no trouble hearing, was exciting at times and subtle at other times.

There was no subtlety in the performance of the  Huayin Shadow Puppet Band, which comprises farmers from Huayin County, a rural village in Shaanxi Province in northwest China. The musicians evinced a wild gusto that communicated with the audience. Onstage were four er-hu, an instrument with two strings that comes in various sizes to cover various portions of the register; a "bench" (looking like a sawhorse) which was brought over from China and played by striking with a blunt object; an hexagonal bowed instrument with three strings, a shawm, a heraldic looking trumpet several feet long that sounded like an angry duck, and all manner of percussion--clappers, gongs, and cymbals.

The sounds were raucous and probably told of ancient battles, mythical heroes, and gods of the oral folk culture of the region.  The shadow puppetry was created upon a backlit white screen and was not so different from that found in Indonesia. The tradition first appeared in this village during the Qing Dynasty in the mid-18th c. It once belonged exclusively to the Zhang family but has recently been passed down to outsiders.

We wish we had understood the narration because it was difficult to figure out what was happening. One scene was perfectly clear.  Two warriors mounted on very small horses threw spears at each other in a long pitched battle. The other scene was confusing but it seemed as if a group of people were scolding a person.

At the end we heard a piece in which the melody was passed around from one instrument to another which we found quite lovely. What a fascinating discovery!

(c) meche kroop

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