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Adapting an Ancient Tradition

With a few Western touches, the National Traditional Orchestra of China celebrates the spirit of the past in works old and new.

March 09, 1997|Ken Smith | Ken Smith is a music writer based in New York

NEW YORK — Somewhere within the world's musical traditions lies an emendation to Kipling: The East and West may not actually meet, but they do keep tabs on each other.

Consider the National Traditional Orchestra of China, which appears this week at the Carpenter Performing Arts Center in Long Beach. It's a musical hybrid, a collection of Chinese instruments, some thousands of years old, fashioned to resemble a Western orchestra. The resulting musical marriage at times resembles a shotgun wedding.

"Most Chinese folk music consists of a single melody," explains the orchestra's director, Yu Song Lin, speaking through an interpreter. "But Western audiences are used to the sound of a full orchestra. We want to present our songs in a manner they find comfortable."

Embedded in that description is the inherent difference between Western orchestras and the recent Chinese model. The former grew out of a developing repertory, the latter out of a concept.

Founded in 1960 by the Chinese Central Ensemble of National Music, the NTOC was the prominent ensemble in a nationwide movement to merge the two traditions. Nearly every city in every Chinese province has a similar orchestra, says Yu, but the NTOC has its pick of the best musicians from conservatories around the country.

For its current tour, the NTOC's debut appearance in the United States, the orchestra also drafted one of China's most eminent emigre musicians--composer Bright Sheng. Sheng's contribution, a new cello concerto called "Spring Dreams," fashions the Chinese orchestra around a Western solo instrument, but more importantly, its hybrid of traditions is neither late Romantic Western music nor Chinese music reconfigured to fit a Western format. It's something completely different.

Orchestras per se are not exactly new to China. Several centuries ago, European visitors, who at that time had no orchestral tradition of their own, were dazzled by the large instrumental ensembles in Confucian temples, and recorded their stunned reactions for posterity. The music itself, however, has been lost, and most of the NTOC's repertory focuses on folk music. Still, the tradition of the Chinese professional musician lives on. Its recent configuration is of a piece with other Western influences seeping into Chinese music, according to orchestra members, who also spoke through an interpreter. "The teaching of traditional music was always a matter of tutoring, from the master to the pupil," says Song Fei, who plays the erhu, a two-stringed Chinese violin. "Now it is taught through the conservatory, just like Western music."

The Westernization even extends somewhat to the instruments themselves. Chinese instruments fall into categories based on their traditional source of sound, including metal (bells and gongs), skin (drums), silk (the pipa, a pear-shaped plucked lute), gourd (the sheng, a multi-piped mouth organ) and bamboo (the di, a Chinese flute). Lately, however, the same production techniques that have mass-produced pianos and violins have brought higher production standards and new materials to Chinese instruments, says Yu, separating them from their original materials.

The role of conductor is another Western addition. Hu Bingxhu, who has led Western-style orchestras in China and Chinese and Western opera ensembles, leads the NTOC on its U.S. tour. Traditionally, he says, the leader of a Chinese ensemble was also a performer. "The skill of a conductor, in Western terms, was not needed. We do not have a long tradition here--maybe 40 or 50 years--of a Western conductor with a stick."

Now, conductors are encouraged to study both Chinese and Western music, he adds, in order to broaden their professional skill. Also, the nature of the NTOC's music, he says, tends to demand the combination.

The Chinese Traditional Orchestra is at once a romanticized view of the past and a new direction for the future, says Yu--a sentiment echoed by the Boston Globe's Richard Dyer after the premiere of Sheng's "Spring Dreams." The work, Dyer found, is "an eloquent tribute to the truest musical culture of his native country. . . . a first step in creating a new musical literature for China."

Commissioned for Yo-Yo Ma, who premiered the work with the orchestra in Worcester, Ma., and the next night at Carnegie Hall (cellist Hai Ye Ni assumes the solo for the rest of the tour), "Spring Dreams" did become a bit of a "Roots" piece, the composer says.

By his own admission, Sheng was an unlikely choice for the project. Not only had he never written for a Chinese orchestra but, unlike many Chinese American composers, he'd never even written for a Chinese instrument. As a longtime scholar of traditional music, though, he wasn't starting from scratch. Also, the orchestra complement includes cellos and double basses.

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