“This is Beijing sound,” said Wu Man, when the Peking Opera gong sounded its upward high-pitched sweep. “Now this is Hunan sound,” she added after another percussionist offered a relatively clipped, flat thump of an otherwise similar circle of metal. “The languages are very different.”
If Carnegie Hall’s Neighborhood Concert at the University Settlement offered a closer connection to the artists than the more formal format at Zankel Hall, it also traced the legwork that Ba Da Chui (literally, “Eight Mallets”) has done since 1992, when four conservatory-trained percussionists in Beijing realized they knew plenty about Peking Opera and Beethoven’s timpani parts, but little about the breadth of regional Chinese percussion. Since then, they’ve delved deeply into China’s vast array of metal, wood, and skin drums; and the different cultures that surround them.
Each player had a broad range of stylistic experience going in, from Peking Opera orchestras to contemporary composition to commercial studio gigs. Co-founder Li Congnong often plays with the Beijing New Music Ensemble. Another co-founder Ma Li (who had another commitment this month and did not come to New York) spent two months last fall in San Francisco performing in the Stewart Wallace-Amy Tan opera The Bonesetter’s Daughter. “Eight Mallets” plays together regularly, though infrequently, given the players’ schedules. The last time I saw them perform was at this season’s Hong Kong Drum Festival opening event with the Hong Kong Chinese Orchestra (more on the HKCO later).
Saturday’s Neighborhood Concert attracted a good mix of young and old—toddlers sometimes sitting on a parent’s lap—and the mix of Chinese and non-Chinese that you’d expect at the intersection of Chinatown and the Lower East Side. The qin player Zhao Jiazhen gave an unscheduled but welcome performance of Flowing River that served as a contemplative palate cleanser between the percussionists’ cymbal-heavy Squabbling Ducks and the piercing Peking Opera sounds of the flatboard drum.Posted by Ken Smith