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The Justice (April 1, 2008)

Chen and Zhao bring a taste of China for "Chinese Modulations"

by Andrea Fineman
Arts Editor

Ologunde Workshop
Media Credit: Julian Agin-Liebes
Jiebing Chen, left, and Yangqin Zhao, right, played the traditional Chinese erhu and yangqin, respectively, challenging Western ears. Photo courtesy of Michael Lovett.

As Chinese musicians Yangqin Zhao and Jiebing Chen walked across the stage at Saturday night's "Chinese Modulations," Slosberg's always somewhat geriatric audience got something of a pleasant surprise. To begin with, Zhao and Chen's stage attire gave classy examples of fro mal wear. Zhao's fuchsia, strappy dress and Chen's black spaghetti-strap top were nothing if not easy on the eyes.

The duo's effortless performance had a similar effect. The program featured Chinese music from the 15th century to the modern day, as well as a composition by Prof. Yu-Hui Chang (MUS). Though to Western ears the medieval Ming Dynasty "Three Sighs at the Guan Pass" sounded very similar to the 20th-century work "Bestowing My Crops to My Nation," all of the works were captivating.

After surveying the program a few pieces in, I was disappointed to see that nearly all of the works spotlighted Chen's instrument, the erhu, rather than the yangqin played by Zhao. The erhu, a two-stringed instrument first used in China around 140 B.C. that has been made popular in our corner of the West by a certain omnipresent street performer in Harvard Square, has a sound very much like the Western violin but somehow more "Asian." The yangqin is a type of hammered dulcimer that came from Arabia to China around the 16th century. I found the yangqin more interesting to listen to because of the novelty of its sounds. The erhu isn't so far off from the violin we Westerners know so well. The yangqin, on the other hand, is a much more unusual sound to western ears, despite the use of the dulcimer in American folk music. Perhaps because the yangqin has a less-extensive history in Chinese culture, or because the instrument traditionally was restricted to the lower classes (leaving the erhu for the aristocracy), there simply aren't many works in the canon that bring the yangqin to the forefront.

One of Zhao's solo performances, "Yellow River's Boatmen Song," written by the 20th century composer Xinghai Xian, truly brought down the house. The music seemed to come out of thin air as she waved her slender sticks at the instrument. In the absence of accompaniment, the audience could hear all the nuances and percussive sounds of the instrument. Parts of the song and the solo yangqin piece "Joyful Xinjiang," also a 20th-century work, were intense, indeed.

To Chen's credit, her ability to pull such a range of notes from only two strings was quite remarkable. "She puts me to shame," said Prof. Judith Eissenberg (MUS), second violinist for the Lydian String Quartet, by way of introduction. Some of Chen's performance in "Birds Singing in a Deserted Mountain" included some unusual sound effects meant to imitate bird sounds. Chen very successfully recreated the birds' chirps and squeaks with her instrument. Many in the audience found this hilarious, but I thought laughing during a classical music performance, however light-hearted it is, was a little disrespectful.

Two of Eissenberg's fellow Lydians, violinist Prof. Mary Ruth Ray (MUS) and cellist Prof. Joshua Gordon (MUS), took the stage along with Tim Feeney, a professional percussionist, to play with Chen and Zhao on Chang's composition for The Orphan of Zhao, currently being staged by the Brandeis Theater Company. Prof. Chang conducted the five-piece ensemble through a work that began intensely, sounding like a thunderstorm or tornado.

After the intermission and a costume change, Chen and Zhao presented more traditional folk songs and 20th-century works. "A Flower," an 18th-century folk song rearranged in 1955 to celebrate China's new socialist society, featured driving melodies, some of which seemed more Western than those of the other traditional songs on the program. Another rather nationalistic work, "Gallop Warhorses," by the 20th-century composer Yaoxin Chen, was a rousing end to the show. The song depicted cavalrymen and warriors stationed at the frontier and featured more erhu antics to create a narrative structure.

Though the concert was the capstone of this semester's weeklong MusicUnitesUS series, the Brandeis community still has another week to satisfy its Chinese culture fix thanks to the Brandeis Theater Company's Orphan of Zhao. The play runs through this Sunday.

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