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About the Author
Ken Smith currently divides his time between New York (where he writes for Gramophone magazine) and Hong Kong (where he serves as the Asian–performing arts critic for the Financial Times). He is Co–Music Director of the recordings Dong Folk Songs and Miao Music for China's MediaFusion Group, and he won an ASCAP–Deems Taylor Award in 2008 for his liner notes to Gil Shaham's recording of The Butterfly Lovers Concerto for Violin. Ken is also the author of Fate! Luck! Chance!, published in 2008 by Chronicle Books.

Ancient Paths, Modern Voices Blog

Don't Feed the Pipas

For those who’ve already gotten as close to the qin as possible without touching it, the Hong Kong Chinese Orchestra now offers its instrument petting zoo. That may be a little exaggeration, but HKCO resident conductor Chew Hee-chiat insists that after the orchestra’s workshop presentation this morning at Flushing Town Hall (and again tomorrow at the University Settlement at the Houston Street Center), members of the audience should touch and at least attempt to play some of the instruments.

“I suggest the zheng (zither), because it’s tuned in pentatonic and you can never hit a ‘wrong’ note,” says Chew, who has been with the orchestra since 2001.

Both in Hong Kong and on tour abroad, the HKCO has introduced the concept of “modern Chinese traditional music” with missionary zeal, not only in concerts but also in lecture demonstrations incorporating audience participation. Largely following the format the orchestra uses in Hong Kong, Chew will lead an ensemble of a dozen players—equally balanced between Chinese wind, plucked-string, bowed-string, and percussion instruments—in a trio of works including a contemporary composition, a traditional folk tune arrangement, and (obviously playing to the home team) an arrangement of “Oh, Susanna.”

“Actually, what we do for Western audiences is not so different from what we do at home,” says the Malaysian-born, US-educated Chew, who conducts the HKCO workshops for English speakers. “You’d think that Chinese listeners might know more about their own tradition—and they usually are more used to hearing the sounds of the instruments without knowing exactly what they are. But we’ve found that Western audiences who seek out our events actually know a lot more.”

Posted by Ken Smith

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