Someone once said, “music is what feelings sound like.” Notes and its components are often better in transcribing some of our most intimate moments and experiences. At some point, many of us have fantasized of our own personal soundtrack to coincide with our climactic, often dramatic lives to capture the essence of particular instances; perhaps a symphony, concerto or even a pop ballad. None, however, seemingly come close to the elegance heard from the strings of traditional, authentic Chinese instruments.On Saturday night, PCC’s Chinese Music Ensemble, directed by Cynthia Hsiang, performed its fall semester concert at the Harbeson Hall. The performance featured some of China’s most historic instruments, such as the erhu, yangqin, zheng and the pipa.
“These instruments have a long history – about 2,000 to 3,000 years,” said Hsiang, who received her master’s in ethnomusicology from UCLA and has been involved in several movie scores, including Jackie Chan’s “Legend of Drunken Master.”
“These instruments are very unique and different [to Western instruments],” added Hsiang, who has also worked with world-renowned composer James Horner. “It’s not hard to play a simple tune, like ‘Mary Had A Little Lamb,’ but to play something really good takes years to learn. Some songs require eight to 10 years!”
During the performance, the ensemble played some of China’s traditional folk songs, including “Moonlight over the River in Spring,” an eight-minute battle between strings, performed by music professor Wanda Bryant on the zheng – a long zither – and Linda Louie on the yangqin – an intricately structured instrument with a complex arrangement of strings hit with two sticks (called “hammers”) made of bamboo with rubber ends. ‘Moonlight’ is a traditional song comprised of lots of strumming on the zheng, and drum-roll-like techniques on the yangqin. Caressed with careful plucking on the zheng, the song was a delight to all ears.
Other featured songs can be found in movies, including “A Little Town Story,” from the movie that bears the same name, which is an emotional score filled with floating melodies weaving back and forth. While the yangqin held the rhythm steady, the erhu’s and zheng’s harmonies drifted blissfully in the background, as the entire ensemble erupted with a graceful composition of whispering sounds and strummed accord.
“I compile and arrange songs to be used,” added Hsiang about the selection of music for the performance. “We spend six weeks learning [the material], and after those six weeks, we prepare for the concert.”
The ensemble, which is a music course offered at PCC, performs every semester and is intended for all interested students, said Hsiang.
“Every semester we start over, [and] different group levels make it difficult to work,” explained Hsiang. “My philosophy, though, is to let all students have fun [despite] ability. I want students to feel welcome and have a good time.”
Whatever misgivings or problems were definitely not noticeable Saturday. Despite the complexities of each song, the ensemble hit every note exactly at the right time; everyone was synchronized and flawless. The result was a graceful two-hour concert composed of ascending melodies, moving harmonies and sonically-pleasing opuses of music from a culture better known for its kung-fu and food.
Saturday’s performance also featured two guest soloists – professional musicians Yunhe Liang and Zhiming Han.
Liang has been a professional musician for about 35 years, playing the erhu with several professional groups throughout his career. He has been performing with PCC’s ensemble for four years now, he said.
“I enjoy it,” said Liang. “I know these instruments are very hard for students [to learn], but I’m happy they [try to] learn it. I enjoy playing with them.”
Liang and Han performed “The Running River,” a Manchurian folk song. Liang gracefully played the erhu while Han played the yangqin. Han proved to be quite the multi-instrumentalist since he also played the ‘Bawu,’ the Chinese reed flute, and the ‘Dizi,’ the Chinese bamboo flute.
The most memorable performance came from Cindy Wong and Carol Chang, who both played the zheng simultaneously next to each other for the song “Tune of Rainbow Cloud,” originally composed by Yuguo Zhou. The epic had beautiful crescendos that gave off a raw, emotionally-charged vibe with syrupy melodies flying and whizzing about, while Hsiang played complementary soft tunes with the piano. The worst part? The song had to end.
“The students work very hard,” added Hsiang, proud of the ensemble’s performance. “To learn an instrument, you must be interested and practice. Talent doesn’t guarantee anything.”
The course is offered each semester and requires no audition.
“Some ensembles need auditions,” said Hsiang. “This is an opportunity for students to learn, practice and perform Chinese music – a tradition that is not so well-known. It’s a beautiful tradition [that I want] to introduce to new audiences and for it to continue.
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