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The Daily News-Tribune (Mar 28, 2008)

Good vibrations: Brandeis concert explores Chinese music

by Jeff Gilbride



Playing instruments that once entertained emperors, two China-born master musicians yesterday thrilled elementary students by playing traditional music unlike anything they'd hear today on MTV.

Jiebling Chen and Yangqin Zhao bowed as elementary school students erupted into applause after hearing their music.

As part of the Music Unites Us program, which brings intercultural musicians to Brandeis University and then onto public schools, students from the Josiah Quincy Elementary School in Boston were treated to music from the women.

"I liked the music," said student Abraham Bah, 10. "I learned how the different vibrations (of the instruments) can make different sounds."

Yesterday, the two women answered a slew of questions from inquisitive students at the Slosberg Recital Hall.

Chen has been hailed as one of the foremost erhu, or Chinese two-stringed fiddle, players in the world.

"A lot of students may not really know the culture and history (of the music)," Chen said. "They asked a lot of questions. I really enjoyed some of the things they asked because I never actually thought of them."

Named after the instrument she plays, Zhao is also a world renowned player of the yangqin, also known as the Chinese dulcimer. The yangqin is a 150-stringed instrument, Zhao said.

"We shared some experience with them today," she said. "I think it's a good opportunity for elementary students to learn (about Chinese music)."

Chen, who grew up in Shanghai, and Zhao, from Nanjing, have lived in San Francisco for 15 years. Having been respected musicians in China, Chen and Zhao said they heard of each other before moving to America, but never played together before that.

"We're like sisters but we're not really sisters," Chen told students.

Their musical selections yesterday ranged from Chinese classical repertory music to "Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star."

During one part of the concert, Chen emulated the sound of a horse on the ehru, in which students erupted into laughter.

Both women offered a history lesson on the instruments they play and also explained the mechanics of the ehru and yangqin. They also explained how they began playing.

"I started playing when I was 5 ... I still practice 40 years later," Chen said. "When I grew up in China in the 60's, (during) that time in China we had the Cultural Revolution. There wasn't much toys. My father gave me this instrument and said stay at home and practice."

Judith Eissenberg, a violinist and founder of Music Unites Us, praised Chen and Zhao, saying their music crosses genres and musical boundaries.

"This is the new kind of musician for the modern age," she said. "These two women have lead the way in a new tradition of music."

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