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Program Builds a Bridge With Music, Dance

World-class artists of Chinese heritage discuss and illustrate their fusion of West and East.

September 04, 2003|Sam Howe Verhovek | Times Staff Writer

SHANGHAI — "OK, you should be more relaxed, but also play a little faster," Lang Lang, the 21-year-old international piano star, was explaining to a seventh-grade boy who sat beside him at a piano while 100 or so young music students watched with rapt attention.

"Play more vividly, make it more like dancing," continued Lang, referring to a piece by Liszt chosen by the student at the Shanghai Conservatory of Music. "This melody has its real ups and downs!"

That sort of interaction was just one of many teaching scenes unfolding here this week as several world-renowned artists of Chinese heritage who are based abroad have returned for an unusual collaboration in music and dance that has become a major cultural event in Shanghai.

The weeklong arts program, "Inspired by China Roots," also has been an opportunity for many of the artists to talk about the fusion of their Chinese and Western experiences and how it influences their approach to art.

Tan Dun, an Oscar- and Grammy-winning composer, explained to an audience at the Shanghai Grand Theater that no matter how much he studies Western music, part of his musical brain is always wandering back to his childhood village in China's Hunan province.

"Without the people in my hometown, I think I cannot write music at all," Tan told the crowd at the theater, where he conducted the Asian premiere of "The Map," a concerto for cello and a large orchestra that was performed against a large video backdrop of Hunan residents playing indigenous instruments. There, people can drum on stones or make flute-like sounds from bamboo leaves, music that Tan's concerto tries to replicate in places with standard orchestral instruments.

"The Map" had its world premiere this year in Boston and also was performed at Carnegie Hall in New York, where Tan is based, though he also has a home in Shanghai. The performance here included a guest soloist appearance by the Finnish cellist Anssi Karttunen and featured the Shanghai Symphony Orchestra.

Although this week's gathering is partly intended as a celebration of the fifth anniversary of the Grand Theater, one of the many new landmarks that have sprouted around Shanghai, "Inspired by China Roots" has struck another chord here.

Having been somewhat hastily arranged after several major cultural events were canceled because of fears about severe acute respiratory syndrome, it amounts to a bit of post-SARS bravado -- or, "a statement that Shanghai's cultural scene is alive and well," in the words of Shirley Young, an organizer and a member of the Committee of 100, a prominent group of Chinese Americans.

Tan, for instance, was supposed to be here at this time for the China premiere of his opera "Tea."

But after that was postponed until next year, he agreed to participate in the "Inspired by China Roots" program.

Due to conduct one of the first performances when the Walt Disney Concert Hall opens next month in Los Angeles, Tan spoke with audiences at some length as well as conducted his work.

He recounted how the inspiration for "The Map" stemmed from an encounter with a stone-drummer when he went back to his native Hunan for a visit 22 years ago.

Aside from Tan, who won the Oscar for his film score for "Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon," and Lang, a China-born classical pianist who is based in Philadelphia, the arts festival features several other internationally known artists.

They too are to perform and discuss their work with audiences and groups of Shanghai students.

These include Huang Dou Dou, the 26-year-old artistic director and principal dancer at the Shanghai Song and Dance Ensemble, who spoke about what he called the "conflict and congruence in style between Chinese traditional dance and classical ballet"; Tan Yuan Yuan, principal dancer from the San Francisco Ballet, who is expected to perform and discuss a similar theme this week; and Tian Hao Jiang, a singer with the Metropolitan Opera for the last 12 years.

The event has featured performances by folk musicians from regions of China and a photo project sponsored by the Arlington, Va.-based Nature Conservancy in which 200 villagers in remote areas of Yunnan province were given cameras to document their lives and landscape.

There was much Western-Asian fusion in evidence, sometimes in humorous ways. When Huang was leading a discussion at the Shanghai Museum, he apologized when a few members of his troupe were late getting to the stage for a demonstration of classical Chinese dance. They were hungry from practicing and had gone out to McDonald's, he explained.

But of all the interactions, perhaps none was more exuberant than that between Lang, a student himself not so long ago, and pupils at the conservatory. Six of them took turns playing and listening to critiques and demonstrations by the young master.

"When you practice a difficult piece, don't think of it as difficult," said Lang, offering advice that many students and professionals alike might find hard to put into practice.

"Treat it as musical art, and simply enjoy it."


Zhang Xiuying of The Times' Shanghai Bureau contributed to this report.

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