My grandfather, who came to America at the age of 12 from mainland China near Hong Kong, once said that he'd done everything a Chinese man could do in this country—manage a restaurant, own a laundromat, be an actor (by which he meant that he'd been in a Beijing Opera troupe in New York). When he died, I inherited his erhu, which I've since sort of learned to play despite a tear in the python-skin head. Obviously, over the last century, the opportunities available to Chinese in this country (visiting or native), have greatly expanded, and so have the uses of the erhu.
The Hong Kong Chinese Orchestra is a bit of a hybrid. The group employs traditional Chinese instruments in a configuration modeled after a Western orchestra, using variants on the erhu in sizes analogous to the Western string family, all with heads made of a synthetic instead of traditional python skin—biodegradable and ecologically sound, these instruments hold their tune during travel, not to mention a resistance to the sort of damage that my own instrument suffered!
The individual instruments played short demonstrations, including a lively rock-star turn by the pipa (plucked lute) player playing Ambush from Ten Sides, which resident conductor Chew Hee-chiat told us we might recognize from any number of Kung Fu movies. Also striking was the wind section's rendition of 100 Birds Calling to the Phoenix, which featured a circular-breathing clinic by the suona (a double-reed with a large bell) player as well as some inventive bird-calling by both suona and dizi (bamboo flute).
The traditional works are essentially heterophonous, which is to say that the instruments all play more or less the same melody, although individual players may add their own ornaments (a concept more or less foreign in Western classical music, although familiar in a typical Gospel choir).
A few audience members were invited to try their hand at the zheng (the plucked zither, memorably employed in fight sequences in Kung Fu Hustle and Hero), including a young man from PS 184M, named Kevin, who trotted down the aisle with both hands raised—a la Rocky—to the applause of his classmates. The event closed with a spirited rendition of Oh Susannah, performed first in a neo-Chinese style—the melody alternating between instruments with a bass line added—and then in a sort of Dixie-land breakdown with the suona player doing his best imitation of a bebop saxophone.Posted by Wesley Chinn, a freelance singer, instrumentalist, and conductor; and general manager of Opera Omnia.