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“Silk and Bamboo: Music From China” delights Mandel Audience

Published: September 20, 2013
Section: Arts, Etc., Top Stories


The dynamics of music and storytelling took a central focus this Wednesday at the Mandel Center with the performance of “Silk and Bamboo: Music From China.” Presented with Brandeis’ Concert Series and Music Unites Us, the musicians behind “Music From China” wowed the bustling crowd seated in the Mandel Atrium with their exquisite playing of eastern folk melodies.

Founded in 1984, “Music From China” is a chamber ensemble that brings together a group of Chinese musicians, with a goal of sharing the richness of Chinese musical culture with audiences. Although the group started out with a strong repertoire in folk ensemble music, they have since grown to explore contemporary styles of music. The result is the group’s ability to play an expanded body of music that fuses together modern and traditional compositions in exciting and innovative tunes.

Performing in the New York City area, the group is made up of classically trained musicians on traditional Chinese instruments. “Music from China’s” artistic director, Wang Guowei, played on the erhu—a two-stringed fiddle played vertically (sometimes analogously called the “Chinese violin”). On the pipa, a four-stringed plucked instrument that is similar to a lute, played Sun Li, while the group’s executive director, Susan Cheng, played the daruan, another lute instrument. Helen Yee elegantly played the Chinese hammer dulcimer, called a yangqin. The hammer dulcimer is a class of string instruments stretched over a trapezoidal board. With a small mallet hammer held in both hands, the sound is produced by the musician striking the strings of the hammer dulcimer. Traditionally, the four instruments complement each other, but what made the small chamber group really work was their shared musicality and dialogue created between group members.

The first piece the group performed was “Sanliu,” which translates to “three-six.” The arrangement is of a traditional narrative song from the Suzhou area of China. The piece was upbeat. In particular, the soaring melodic line of the erhu added to the dance-like quality of the piece. It was reminiscent to the energy of Copland’s “Hoedown.” Next, the group took us further south of China with a traditional Cantonese tune, “Autumn Moon Over a Tranquil Lake.” Cheng explained that Cantonese style of Chinese music was perhaps the first type of Chinese music Americans heard, from the first waves of Chinese immigrants. The piece revolved around a central melody, and melodic embellishment was showcased as each instrument added its own color to the melody line.

Midway through the song, Hui Weng was featured as a solo artist on the Chinese plucked zither called the “Zheng.” Performing a contemporary piece “Misty Dawn,” Weng was truly virtuosic as she articulated the ideas of the song with her whole body, letting the sound be expressed through her hands and arm gestures as she plucked and pressed on the Zheng. Weng’s mesmerizing performance was met with a shower of applause that filled the Mandel Atrium.
Before playing each piece, the executive director of the group and daruan player, Susan Cheng, gave a brief introduction and explained the background behind the composition. Also noted was the closeness to nature that inspires Chinese music. This was evident in the titles of the songs, such as “Birds in the Forest,” and the serene twilight of the ocean that was conveyed in “Fisherman’s Night Song.” What emerged was a theme of storytelling and narrative that underlies Chinese folk music. From this, audiences were able to gain an appreciation for Chinese culture.

The Concert Series is in part a teaser for Brandeis audiences to be familiar with “Music from China.” The group is scheduled to return to Brandeis for full residency, Nov. 22-24, 2013. As such, this performance was meant to pique audience’s interest for their return later this fall. From the positive reaction of the audience, it is clear that their return will be much anticipated by Brandeis faculty and students alike.