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Tuning up a tradition

Chen Jie
Updated: Dec 30,2015 9:50 AM     China Daily

Rediscover Chinese Music is a multimedia spectacle, featuring 10 Chinese classical music works presented with a modern twist.[Photo provided to China Daily]

Before the musical show Rediscover Chinese Music was staged at the Kennedy Center, Lincoln Center and Carnegie Hall in December, director Wang Chaoge was proud that every day, eight theater productions directed by her were running at China’s most popular travel destinations.

On the US tour, she met an American audience member who told her that he used to think it ridiculous that Chinese spent a big sum touring a show that might be nonsense to the Western audience. But this show, he said, was an unexpected experience that touched his heart.

The multimedia spectacle Rediscover Chinese Music, as its name suggests, features a repertoire of 10 traditional Chinese classics, which are arranged with a modern twist and performed by the China National Traditional Orchestra.

In 2013, the orchestra’s president, Xi Qiang, talked with Wang about the possibility of creating a production reviving traditional Chinese music.

Xi, who learned traditional instruments and started with the orchestra by playing the erhu, a two-stringed Chinese fiddle, had always dreamed of reviving traditional music.

Wang, who co-directed the opening ceremony of the 2008 Beijing Olympic Games, is famous for her creative open-air shows, called the Impression series, staged at many of China’s popular tourist destinations.

“I love Chinese traditional music. But I know if we don’t play it in a modern context, it might get lost soon. So I told Xi: ‘If you let me direct the concert, I would turn your orchestra upside down. Would that scare you?’” Wang recalls.

Xi resolutely said no.

Performers of Rediscover Chinese Music meet young fans after the show in the United States.[Photo provided to China Daily]

So Wang commissioned Jiang Ying, resident composer of the orchestra, to create new works on the traditional instruments and produce a show called Impression of Chinese Music.

Since its 2013 premiere at the National Center for the Performing Arts, the show became a box-office success throughout China and attracted many young people.

Therefore Xi and Wang decided to do a new show.

“I’m bold. Xi is bold. And Jiang is bold, too. We push the boundaries to give the old music a new look,” says Wang.

Xi says: “Wang is very creative. As an outsider to traditional music, she provides a fresh eye. So I trust her to make a further step.”

This time, they chose 10 pieces based on their popularity, appeal and use of traditional Chinese instruments, such as the erhu, the pipa (a four-stringed lute) and the dizi (a bamboo flute).

The 10 pieces composed in different dynasties also reflect the evolution of Chinese history.

“The tunes are all familiar to Chinese audiences, but not many people nowadays know the stories behind the music,” Wang says. “Actually most traditional Chinese music tells touching stories. If we perform abroad for people of other cultures, we should tell them the stories.”

For example, High Mountain and Flowing Water performed on the guqin, a seven-stringed zither, is said to be the story of Yu Boya (413-354 BC), who played the guqin in the mountains. A woodcutter, Zhong Ziqi, heard the music and realized exactly what Yu wanted to express. Yu treasured Zhong’s understanding so much that later, when he knew Zhong died, he broke his zither and never played the music again.

The pipa song Ambush from Ten Sides tells the story of Xiang Yu (232-202 BC), the king of Chu, who failed in the final battle against Liu Bang (256-195 BC), the king of Han. The depressed Xiang knew he had been surrounded by Han’s army and had to kill his horse, his lover and finally himself.

Jiang rearranges the 10 works without diminishing their original appeal but makes them suitable for the storyline of the show.

In the show, the director let the orchestra members not only play their instruments but also perform the historical roles and narrate stories of their own connected to the music.

Feng Mantian, who plays the ruan, a four-stringed plucked instrument, plays music inspired by three poems by Tang poet Wang Wei (AD 701-761).

During the multimedia show featuring the desert scene described in the poem, Feng narrates the poems and his own story of learning the ruan.

“I can clearly feel the poet’s sadness of saying farewell to his friends and going to the wilderness alone. I believe the audience could feel it, too,” Feng says.

Describing the show, Wang says: “Let the old music tell new stories and let today’s people see themselves through the music and stories. That’s what I wanted to achieve-and we did it.”

Rediscover Chinese Music will start a China tour with the first show at the National Center for the Performing Arts on Jan 4.

If you go

7:30 pm, Jan 4. National Center for the Performing Arts, west of Tian’anmen Square, Xicheng district, Beijing. 01066550000.