It is rare to have an ensemble of Chinese instruments perform in the Western format of an orchestra. Never before had I ever experienced such a combination of sounds, even though I grew up in Shanghai, China.
Both Western and Chinese instruments do have elements in common, namely wood, metal, and string, but they are different in many ways. One sees many unfamiliar uses of these common materials, and one sees the use in Chinese instruments of such materials as gourds, hide, and stone, not found in Western ensembles, that produce distinct textures new to Western ears. Also, there are numerous string instruments configured very differently with different shaped sound chambers that produce similar but uniquely different sound characteristics.
The Hong Kong Chinese Orchestra filled the hall with tremendous energy and gave the audience an extraordinary combination of layered, colorful sounds. Although the means was unfamiliar to most, the use of familiar musical forms and sonorous textures helped to bridge cultural borders and to make otherwise foreign musical sounds completely accessible to many listeners.
The principal conductor of the orchestra, Yan Huichang, led four major works: Law Wing-Fai's Flowing Phantasm, Guo Wenjing's Three Melodies of West Yunnan, Zhao Jiping's Zhuang Zhou's Dream, and Cheng Dazhao's The Yellow River Capriccio.
As I learned in China, the Yellow River is known as "the cradle of Chinese civilization" and has always been a great symbol of China's strength. The Capriccio, which celebrates the rich life along the Yellow River, is characterized by a unique climax that the audience participates in. When seating prior to the concert, we were most surprised to find a small Chinese hand drum placed on our seats. Just before the performance of the Capriccio, we were all given an impromptu lesson on their use. I was impressed by how quickly an entire audience responded to cues from Maestro Yan, not only to play the drum but also to sing. This certainly wasn't a typical Carnegie Hall experience! The result during the performance was a boisterous ending that included dialogue between the audience and the on-stage drum ensemble. Everyone left with a wonderful sense of energy.
So as the evening concluded, I found myself wondering: As a listener absorbed in the reflections of all this rich and new (to me) sound, I asked, is there some other essence of the Chinese character embodied in the music we heard besides the simple fact that it was played on (almost) purely Chinese instruments?
As I was leaving Carnegie Hall with good friends, pondering this question, suddenly the idea popped into my head. Yes. There was a "yin and yang" in the music that was more present than I had realized at first. It was about many contrasts and new textures combined with familiar musical form and metaphors that had communicated to me. But even more so, there was something from my own present, living in America, which looked forward to the future and combined with my distant past—and even with the past before that back to "classical" China—which had spoken to me this evening with such joy and vibrancy.
Posted by Yee Ping Wu, co-founder of Knoa Software and a graduate of The Juilliard School