Melody of China
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Melody of China

San Francisco, California, United States | SELF

San Francisco, California, United States | SELF
Band World Classical




"World Music Review: Chinese and Western Music"

The Bay Area is home to a significant community of Chinese expatriate musicians of the highest performing and creative caliber. All too often they are eclipsed by visiting performers from China; for, as the Chinese proverb goes: Only monks from afar (are thought to) know the true sutras. Melody of China, a non-profit organization of professional musicians, presented four of its shining stars in an evening of Chinese and Western classical music at the Herbst Theater, Saturday. Actually the program comprised entirely Chinese music, excepting the last piece, Concerto for Erhu, Yangqin, and Orchestra, the world premier of a Western contemporary work by a resident Chinese composer, Gang Situ.

The first half of the concert featured seven items: modern arrangements of traditional folk music and modern programmatic compositions based on traditional idioms, titled Bestowing My Crops to My Nation, Water in the River, Sunshine on the Taxkorgan, The General's Command, Yellow River's Boatmen Song, Birds Singing in a Deserted Mountain, and Galloping Horses. The pieces were performed in duet and solo by Chen Jiebing on the erhu, and Zhao Yangqin on the yangqin. These prize-winning women are Chinese conservatory and American music school diplomates (more on the performers and instruments below).

So-called 'traditional' Chinese pieces tend to be long on technical virtuosity and short on musical substance. They are largely melodic, highly descriptive or imitative (in the case of birds or horses), and played in unison or organum. Modern arrangers add variations; repetition in different registers and speeds; heterophony and counterpoint; rhythmic or arpeggiated bridging sections; long difficult cadenzas; and, worst of all, triadic harmony. The pieces in this concert are essentially the same, but with some delightful touches.

Varied Styles Given Fine Performances
First and most gratifying was the disappearance of 19th-century triadic harmony and arpeggios so beloved by arrangers in China. The program opened with Bestowing My Crops to My Nation a fast, joyous duet based on a peasant tune played in unison with some lower doubling. The spirit of rustic simplicity overlies the irony that farmers are not so joyous about "rendering onto Caesar" while going hungry themselves. In other pieces, Chinese melodies are interspersed with motifs using modernistic yet appropriate progression.

Zhang Zhenzhou's arrangement of Yellow River Boatmen has chromatic sections (the boatmen's struggle in a storm) clashing with the pentatonic theme but with a refreshing wake-up effect. Birds Singing in a Deserted Mountain still has the obligatory imitative bird calls, but with restrained elegance rather than the usual overblown raucousness. Clearly these performers have learned in their ten-year sojourn that what is innovative and exotic in China is old hat in the West and good old-fashioned simplicity is better than indiscriminate hybridization.

Certainly the soloists deserved the standing ovation they received. Chen plays the erhu, a two stringed viol, with the violinistic technique adopted by some Chinese musicians since the 1930's, drawing out sustained lyrical tones using a bow nearly two and half feet long. True traditional Chinese erhu is played with shorter strokes and biting articulation on both down and up bow, producing a strident timbre. It has two sonant strings stretched across the snake skin sound box from pegs protruding through the neck.

The erhus's sound box rests on one knee as the bow is sandwiched between the two strings (tuned a fifth apart) and drawn over the inside or outside string by pushing or pulling, which allows quick leaps of wide intervals. The bow is also continuously rosined as it passes over a dab of rosin melted onto the top of the cylinder. The modern instrument has a longer neck to extend the range and steel strings for a mellower sound. As the stopped section of the strings has no fingerboard, the player must employ precise position and tension for accurate pitch. Chen displays great virtuosity in both the slow, exposed passages and the very fast ones.

Zhao Yangqin has won numerous prizes as a yangqin player. Her musical parents had named all of their children after instruments they play. The yangqin is a hammer dulcimer with varying tunings and numbers of strings. Zhao used two varieties: one with 150 strings and, for the double concerto with, one with 180. The strings cover four octaves, closely spaced and stretched over a trapezoidal sound box. They may be tuned singly, in pairs, or even up to sets of five and are struck with two thin, springy bamboo rods with mallets at their ends, requiring great skill and long practice. Zhao's expressiveness and dynamic control are most impressive. In the duet pieces such as Sunshine of Taxkorgan, Chen and Zhao display such perfect ensemble that the music sounds as though played by one person. No scene stealing between these two virtuosi.

(Lindy - San Francisco Classical Voice

"Chinese Musicians Spread Heritage Through Performance"

Melody of China, an ensemble of musicians based in San Francisco, performed a concert of traditional Chinese music in LPAC on Friday evening. The concert followed a lecture and musical demonstration of Chinese instruments. The group, which is focused on bringing Chinese music to the United States, was also accompanied by Chen Tao, an acclaimed Chinese flutist living in New York.

Melody of China was conceived in 1993 with hopes to both “provide rich musical entertainment through the synergy of ancient Chinese tradition with the youthful, diverse American culture” and to “promote classical and modern Chinese music.”
The concert featured traditional music from both the North and South regions of China played on five instruments: the yangqin (hammered dulcimer), the guzheng (zither), the erhu (two-stringed fiddle), the sheng (mouth organ), and the dizi (bamboo flute).

During the demonstration and the lecture preceding the concert, members of Melody of China described the histories of the instruments and music. Many of the instruments used during the performance were either brought to or created in China over 500 years ago and were the predecessors for Western instruments. The sheng (mouth organ), for example, served as the basis for the Western reed organ.

The group also used different instruments to replicate the music from different Chinese regions. Chen Tao, for example, used a long bamboo flute to create the smoother melodic lines common in Southern China and a shorter, smaller flute for the “robust” and “energetic” music from the North. Tao suggested that Southern music is “like water” while Northern music is more “like mountains,” concluding that the music from the North was influenced by its mountainous landscape while the Southern composers were inspired by the rivers of the South.

Yangqin Zhao, who plays the yangqin in Melody of China, briefly explained the history of Chinese musical notation, saying that music used to be written in Chinese characters but has since moved to the modern “number system.” She also described the differences between Chinese music and most Western music by saying that Chinese music is based around the pentatonic or five-note scale, whereas Western music was historically based on the diatonic or seven-note scale.

To achieve a greater awareness of Chinese music in America and abroad, Melody of China has organized various musical events in the past. Since the group began, it has “commissioned and/or premiered over forty new works by twenty contemporary composers.” The group has also provided music for Chinese ballets, asked young composers to write music for the group, and runs workshops and classes in San Francisco.

Chen Tao, who moved to the United States in 1993, has helped bring Chinese music to America. Along with composing new music for the bamboo flute, Tao co-founded Melody of Dragon, Inc. in 1998. The group is a non-profit that, according to their website, works to “build a bridge of musical and cultural exchange between China and the United States.”

In the future, Melody of China hopes to work further towards their goals by promoting the composition of new Chinese music and by continuing lecture-demonstrations and music programs in schools around the Bay Area. The group is also planning a world premier dance piece for December that will be choreographed by Lily Cai and will feature music by Gang Situ.

- The Daily Gazette – Swarthmore, PA

"Wang Stretches Chinese Music Beyond Old Borders"

When he was traveling in Europe in 1991, Hong Wang heard an Irish group called the Red Army playing Chinese traditional music — and doing it very well. Since arriving in America two years later, Wang has dedicated his energy to the dissemination of his country’s music, blending it with other cultural flavors to keep it vibrant and alive.

Wang brings his Melody of China ensemble to San Jose on Friday and to San Francisco on Sunday for another musical meeting of the minds. The concert will feature traditional Chinese instruments like the pipa (lute), ruan (guitar) and hammered dulcimer. Joining the Chinese musicians onstage will be local jazzman Anthony Brown and an Indian tabla player, Ty Burhoe, from New York. That, says Wang, is what America means to him.

“It would be impossible to learn about all this different music in China,” said Wang. “In San Francisco, it’s easy to find.” He stresses that a unique concert like the one that will be performed at the Herbst Theater would also be unheard of in his native land. “Even in China you can’t see this kind of performance,” he said.

Begun as the Duet of China upon his arrival in 1993, Wang’s circle of musical friends has expanded and in 1997 re-formed as a nonprofit entity called Melody of China. Through school outreach programs and concerts, Wang hopes to educate Americans about Chinese music while encouraging beautiful hybrids of the form by grafting on instruments and themes from the Western tradition.

“I like Irish music,” said the multi-instrumentalist. “It has all the same instruments — guitar, mandolin, fiddle.” He also noted that the pentatonic scales and repeat-and-variation structure unite the Celts and the Chinese. Thus, Melody of China audiences have been pleasantly surprised to hear Irish and country tunes pop up in the middle of a performance — and next year’s show will even feature line dancing.

The group has withstood some serious challenges in the past few months. In September, a number of valuable instruments were stolen from their van after a San Francisco performance. In the past two weeks, despite the efforts of Sen. Barbara Boxer, a number of musicians scheduled to perform were unable to obtain work visas to enter the country. Further, the post-Sept. 11 economy has resulted in a bit of a slump in ticket sales.

These setbacks have done nothing to dampen the enthusiasm of Wang, whose collaborators have included jazzmen Max Roach and David Murray, as well as the Oakland Ballet. The man who learned traditional instrumentation as a child in Nanjing now gives lessons on the saxophone and oboe, an outgrowth of his eight-year teaching career at Nanjing Normal University.

The centerpiece of the concert this week is New York-based composer Yuanlin Chen’s new suite of music. (Chen composed the music for Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon.) The world premiere will include six drum sets on stage: a Japanese taiko drum set, the aforementioned Indian tabla, an American jazz drum set and three Chinese drum sets. Conductor Ming Guan Zhu, dean of the traditional instrument department of the music conservatory at Wang’s alma mater, Nanjing Normal University, will help the musicians navigate the cross cultural currents. All in a day’s work for Hong Wang, a man who finds common ground everywhere he goes. - Asian Week


Music Sampler - 2009
Melody of China - 2007



For over a decade, Melody of China has been producing innovative programs that combine traditional and contemporary music. Established by Hong Wang and Yangqin Zhao, along with other musicians from prestigious Chinese music conservatories, its extensive repertoire includes folk songs, classical music, festival music, opera, popular music, and contemporary music, as well as pieces from different ethnic groups in China. This award-winning San Francisco-based ensemble performs regularly throughout the U.S., Europe, Asia, and Australia.

Multi-instrumentalist Hong Wang and 'yangqin" (Chinese hammered dulcimer) master Yangqin Zhao co-direct the the ensemble. They are joined by Wanpen Guo on "sheng" (mouth organ) and Gangqin Zhao on "guzheng" (table harp), Thomas Lee on "ehru" (spike fiddle) and frequently by other guest artists.

Melody of China offers a wide array of concerts, commissions, classes, workshops, and lectures, as well as a comprehensive educational program for elementary and high school students. Since 1993, they have visited nearly a hundred schools and institutions around the San Francisco Bay Area, and have worked in collaboration with such organizations as Young Audiences of North California, Young Imaginations, Education Division of the Music Center of LA County, San Francisco Symphony's Adventures in Music Program, and many others.

Melody of China breaks down cultural walls with their colorful, fresh, and lively performance of the full range of Chinese music.

Band Member Individual Biographies:

Yangqin Soloist
Member of Chinese Nationalities Orchestra Society

Yangqin (hammered dulcimer) Soloist of Melody of China Yangqin Zhao, prophetically named after the instrument she has become famous for playing, has established herself as one of the foremost yangqin (Chinese dulcimer) performers in the world, having been elected to the prestigious Chinese Musicians Association and the Chinese Nationalities Orchestra Society. Showing promise at an early age, she studied yangqin under professor Qian Fang-Ping of the Nanjing Arts College. In 1982, she graduated with honors from Nanjing Normal University's Music Department and eventually became head of the faculty of instrumental music of that university.

Ms. Zhao has been invited to perform in many countries, including Australia, the Netherlands, Belgium, Singapore, Hong Kong, Mexico and Germany, where she has lectured at universities, conservatories and music schools. In an excerpt from CHIME Newsletter by Frank Kouwenhoven, Secretary-general of the European Foundation for Chinese Music Research, he notes:" I was impressed not only by her high technical standard of playing but also the strong musical feeling she displayed during Performance and by her friendly and modest character." In June of 1996, she was invited as one of seven musicians who are masters on the Yangqin - like instruments (hammered dulcimer) for the Tanz & FolkFest Rudolstadt (Folk Instruments Festival) in Germany in September, 1996, she performed as the yangqin soloist with Shanghai Ethnic Orchestra. In June 2000, she was invited to perform at the "Concert in the Wildstage" by Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra in Berlin, Germany.

Gangqin Zhao
Guzheng and Chinese Percussionist

Member of Chinese Musicians' Association
Gangqin Zhao, younger sister of Yangqin Zhao, studied the yangqin under her father ever since childhood. She was on stage performing when she was eight. At age 14, she began to learn the guzheng (Chinese zither) and percussion instruments under the well-known music educator and the board director of the China Musician's Association, Jiangsu Branch.

Since 1991, she has been teaching the guzheng and yangqin in the Nanjing Children Music & Dance School. In 1996, she took part in the editing the music book for Jiangsu Province School District. The book has been used as nationwide music book. She also certified by Jiangsu Educational Committee. In 1998, she was invited as a multi-instrumentalist by Young Imaginations, Inc. for performances and educational programs in the schools in the San Francisco Bay Area. In 1999, she performed in the Silk Road Festival at Skirball Center, Los Angeles.
In 2000, she performed with "Peony Pavilion" group at Denmark International Folk Festival.

In January 2001, she performed with "Peony Pavilion" group at Berlin International Folk Festival.
She has performed throughout California. She has performed at Cal Performances (UC Berkeley), the Music Center of L.A. County, Yerba Buena Center for the Performing Arts (San Francisco), San Jose Center for the Performing Arts, Flint Center (Cupertino), UC, Sacramento, CSU, Chico, and Petaluma Summer Festival, Sonoma Folk Festival, Asian American Jazz Festival etc.

Thomas Lee
Gaohu and Ehru soloist

Mr. Thomas Lee was born into a musical family. Under the tutelage of his father, he started his gaohu training at the age of nine. by the time he was twelve he was a seas