Tuesday evening’s Intermezzi IV outing at the Cathedral Church of St. Luke & St. Paul featured the four excellent Chinese traditional instrumentalists who comprise the orchestral core for this year’s production of the Chinese opera Feng Yi Ting. While I’m far from an expert on Chinese classical music, I thoroughly enjoyed the eight different works (including two world premieres) that they performed for us, either as soloists or in ensemble. Each is an internationally recognized virtuoso of his or her instruments.
Chen Yihan is one of the world’s reigning virtuosos of the pipa, a kind of Chinese lute with the unique sort of plucked or strummed “twang” that is characteristic of native Asian music. Hong-Da Chin is a master of the dadi and dizi, variants of the Chinese bamboo flute. These, like western flutes, are played in the transverse position, and sound surprisingly similar to western flutes, though with a somewhat softer, woody tone. Wang Guowei is the group’s bowed-string expert, playing the erhu (often called the Chinese violin) and its variants, the higher-toned gaohu and lower-pitched zhonghu. Last but not least is Wang Hong, a brilliant player of the guanzi, a double-reed wind instrument with an especially varied range of appealing sound. He also plays the sheng, a kind of multi-reed mouth organ.
The first three works were all examples of traditional Chinese music, either in original form or arrangements. The first of them, A Moonlit Night on the Spring River, involved all four players in ensemble. It projected the impressionistic feel and image of the beauties of the Yangtze River in springtime. Next came Variations on the Song of Yang Guan, a haunting solo number from Wang Hong’s supremely expressive guanzi that effectively portrayed the mixed emotions engendered by a dear friend’s departure. Chen Yihan then transfixed her listeners with a gripping pipa solo, King Chu Doffs his Armor, which dramatically depicts in music the first military defeat of an ancient Chinese king who thought he was invincible, complete with stylized battle sounds.
The remaining pieces were all original compositions, some based on traditional folk music or opera. The Song of Henan, by Liu Ming Yuan, was Wang Guowei’s fascinating erhu solo that was remarkable for the way it imitated human speech patterns and singing. Chen Yihan (pipa) and Hong-Da Chin (dizi) then teamed up for Green, a delicate and highly evocative number by well-known modern composer Zhou Long that has to do with how man relates to his natural environment. Wang Guowei’s Drinking Alone with the Moon, for erhu, pipa and dizi, is based on Tang dynasty poet Li Bai’s imagined recitation (with song-and-dance impressions) of verses that portray just what the title suggests.
The pair of world premiere works started with Hong-Da Chin’s solo rendition of his own composition, Poem Recitation, in which his soulful dizi plays the role of the above-mentioned ancient poet reciting his own verses dealing with the grief of homesickness. It was remarkable how well his flute captured the sense of the poet’s imagined vocal narrative as well as the bitter sadness of his words. The other premiere (played by all four musicians) was contemporary composer Chen Hsin-Lei’s By the Light of Nature, a musical realization of the concept of “nothingness” or “blankness,” described in the notes as “one of the spiritual cores of Chinese art.” To give you a partial idea of that concept, imagine something that is hidden from you, like a village that you can’t see because there’s a mountain in front of it. This most impressive work included some apparently pre-recorded digital sounds.
As I said, I’m hardly qualified to play the critic for culturally “alien” music that I can’t possibly understand completely or instruments which I have no way of knowing are being played properly. But human emotions and imagination, as expressed in art, are matters that are common to us all, no matter what part of the world we’re from. Once I adjusted to the (at first) “singsong” five-tone Chinese scales and the different-sounding instruments, the music came across with eerie sorts of beauty and emotional impact that both pleased my ears and stirred my soul.