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MUSIC : A Classical Technique for Their Folk Songs

June 15, 1995|BENJAMIN EPSTEIN | Benjamin Epstein is a free-lance writer who contributes frequently to the Times Orange County Edition.

Henry Cheng believes the best way to teach a choir to sing Chinese folk songs is to feed it a steady diet of Handel and Mozart.

"Our members are Chinese, most from Taiwan," said Cheng, 60, music director of the Irvine Chinese Chorus, which performs Sunday at the Irvine Barclay Theatre. "We think about our hometowns, and most of the time we want to sing our songs. But when we practice, we mostly sing Western, and mostly classical.

"We learn from the classical to improve our Chinese songs. The compositional styles are different, the singing techniques are the same."

Two years ago, the chorus presented a joint concert of Western and Chinese music with the Irvine Valley College Choir. But this year, for its fifth anniversary program, the 45-member ensemble will concentrate on folk songs from Chinese provinces.

"This year is very special, so I chose all Chinese songs," Cheng said. "Most of our singers are in their late 30s and 40s. When we sing these pieces they might be thinking about friends, and missing relatives far away."

Cheng will take the opportunity to introduce his own "Blossoming Reeds," sung in Taiwanese, at the concert. "This song I can state is a world premiere," he assured.

Cheng also considers other music on the program--including several songs for women only ("Crimson Foliage," "A Lass's Blush" and "Autumn Chrysanthemum")--to be very special.

To get this special music, Cheng knows where to turn.

"My music teacher was a very famous composer and conductor in Taiwan, Chuan-Sheng Lu," Cheng said. "He is over 80 years old, in retirement, and all his sons are in the United States. So now for two years he lives in California. Any time I need a choral song, I ask my teacher."

Lu also arranged a Hunan folk song, "Bamboo Shoulder Pole," for children's choir and male chamber singers; that piece will be performed by the North Orange County Children's Choir and the Ray Shine Chorus, augmenting the men of the Irvine Chinese Chorus.

Cheng is also director of the 25-member Ray Shine Chorus, which he founded 10 years ago in Cerritos. Explained Cheng, who lives in Cerritos, Ray Shine is actually a roundabout translation and transliteration of the word Cerritos to Chinese characters and back again. That group performs annually at Cypress College.

To augment Sunday's show, a few dramatic touches are planned, including during the Chinese folk song "Fireflies," Cheng said. "We turn off all the lights on the stage. We use small flashlights. It looks like the bug."

The Irvine Chinese Chorus was organized by parents who dropped their children off each week for Chinese lessons at University High School; the group rehearses every Sunday in the school's music room. Cheng's wife, Susan, serves as accompanist.

In Taiwan, Cheng said, "teaching choir was my main job, for 23 years. After immigrating in 1977, I didn't have a chance to do it."

Here, his main job is in Toshiba's electronics department, but that doesn't mean he doesn't have enough time for his singers.

"I hope [the groups] get more members," Cheng said. "I want us to sing more Western classical music. And some very difficult songs from Taiwan."

* What: Irvine Chinese Chorus.

* When: Sunday at 8 p.m.

* Where: Irvine Barclay Theatre, 4242 Campus Drive, Irvine.

* Whereabouts: Take the San Diego (405) Freeway to the Jamboree Road exit and head south. Turn left on Campus Drive. The theater is near the corner of Bridge Road.

* Wherewithal: $5.

* Where to call: (714) 854-4646 or Ticketmaster, (714) 740-2000.


The Southwest Chamber Music Society plays music by Alban Berg, Ernst Krenek and Johannes Brahms on Friday at Chapman University in Orange. Soloists are pianist Vicki Ray and mezzo-soprano Kathleen Roland. $20; $10 for students and seniors. (800) 726-7147.

Humorist/pianist Victor Borge performs Sunday at the Orange County Performing Arts Center in Costa Mesa. The concert by the "Great Dane" is presented by the Orange County Philharmonic Society. $10-$47. Ticketmaster, (714) 740-2000.

The Houston Grand Opera production of Gershwin's opera "Porgy and Bess" opens Wednesday at the Orange County Performing Arts Center in Costa Mesa and runs through June 25. $19-$60. (714) 556-2787.


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