Tuesday, July 16

Music of China Ensemble to perform at Fowler Museum

Ethnomusicology professor Chi Li has had a storied career to say the least. An accomplished player of the erhu, a Chinese two-stringed fiddle, she has performed as erhu soloist in the National Traditional Orchestra of China. Li has played at world-renowned venues and more recently directed a series of high-profile events.

Fresh off a performance at the Huntington Library, The Music of China Ensemble’s concert today at the Fowler Museum will feature a small group of students playing “silk and bamboo” chamber music from Southeast China.

“I’m very happy we have a chance to show Chinese music on campus,” Li said. “Last time we performed for the Chancellor’s inauguration. Sometimes we take it for granted, thinking everyone knows about Chinese music, but when we performed, we received e-mails from faculty members who were amazed by how beautiful Chinese music is.”

Comprised entirely of Li’s students, the ensemble represents a variety of China’s diverse regions with evocative Naxi folk dances and Cantonese musical scores. On the program for the Fowler show is a varied array of song and dance encompassing China’s storied history.

The traditional Kun Opera Aria, for example, illustrates the relationship between Emperor Tang Xuanzong and his favorite concubine Yang Yuhuan. Other pieces further capture the idiosyncrasies of particular Chinese regions. The bouncy, textured bu bu gao represents a lively, happy mood associated with Cantonese music.

“Chinese music has different styles and different forms. … Of course, China is a big country. … I just try to be as diversified as possible,” Li said.

The eclectic makeup of the ensemble mirrors this diversity. Members range from experienced graduate students to wunderkind high school students. Zach Nelson, a 17-year-old high school senior from the Las Virgenes independent study program, has played erhu for the ensemble since he was 13.

“Almost every quarter, (Li) gets people with almost no musical experience and gets them performing at the end of quarter concerts,” Nelson said.

Jianjing Kuang, a graduate student in linguistics, on the other hand, joined the ensemble with a preexisting familiarity with the qin, a more obscure, seven-string instrument. Still, Kuang attributes her growth as a musician to Li.

“(Li) taught me how to express with music the spirit of Chinese culture, pureness and elegance,” Kuang said.

However, for all her acumen as an educator, Li faces substantial directorial hurdles. For one, the upcoming Fowler concert is scheduled to be played outdoors, admittedly a problem for music meant to be heard within the confines of a closed indoor space.

In addition, Li said she understands that she must strike a balance between traditional and contemporary Chinese music, making the music easier to digest for a contemporary audience without straying too far from its traditional roots. “I have to introduce traditional (music) and adjust it to fit modern people’s taste as well,” Li said. “I have to blend traditional and contemporary (music), and make audiences feel that their time is well spent. It’s important to deliver knowledge and also entertain as well. Education doesn’t always have to be dry.”

But the ensemble’s performance is not exclusively about its richly balanced, textured music. The wide range of rare instruments employed such as the pipa and erhu double as artifacts. Adorned with hand-sculpted dragon heads and intricate wood-carved patterns, the preciously crafted instruments are as much highlights as the rich, layered sounds that they produce.

Among the instruments in use at the Fowler show will be the ruan, a rounded, plucked lute with four strings, and the xiao, a bamboo flute with six to seven finger holes.

“You will learn what Chinese instruments look like. You’ve probably heard (Chinese) music before, but how the instruments look is a good thing to learn as well,” Li said.

Nevertheless, for some members, performance is but one of the benefits of Li’s ensemble. Kuang, who moved to Los Angeles from China a year ago, views the ensemble as a home away from home.

“I came here last year, and it was really hard for me as a foreigner,” Kuang said. “I’m so lucky to have found professor Li here. Everyone gets along very well. We’re just one happy family.”

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