Taiwan's National Chinese Orchestra
by France Kai-Hwa Wang
From the October, 2019 issue
The lights dim as the orchestra members take their seats on the stage. They tune their instruments and anticipation mounts as the director joins them to launch the North American tour of the National Chinese Orchestra of Taiwan, brought here by the Michigan Taiwanese American Organization (MiTAI) for concerts at EMU, U-M, Oakland University, and the DIA.
Then the director starts a PowerPoint presentation.
A recorded woman's voice comes over the speakers to introduce Taiwan and Taiwan's premier Chinese orchestra. This is not the way concerts usually begin, but soon each of the traditional Chinese instruments in the orchestra is being introduced, with musicians playing them one by one.
When we get to the erhu, a two-stringed fiddle, we are introduced to the whole family of huqin, with four musicians playing "Yankee Doodle" together on the erhu 1 and 2, gaohu, and gehu. Layering voice upon voice, they harmonize until the hall is filled with music, and we cannot miss how these four instruments are related. Before they even finish, I know that I will henceforth associate "Yankee Doodle" with this moment and these instruments.
The music that follows is bright and crisp, with regional folk songs evoking a lilting pastoral nostalgia, and charming contemporary Taiwanese compositions and American folk songs rounding out the program. Highlights include solos on dizi (bamboo flute), yangqin (Chinese dulcimer), and soprano sheng (multi-reed mouth organ), a fascinating instrument with a big personality and distinctive horn sound. As sheng soloist Chen Chi-Mi plays "Spanish Gypsy Dance (Espana cani)" he dances across the stage, his shock of hair bobbing in and out of his eyes.
At U-M, the orchestra is joined by U-M music professors Amy Porter (flute), Matt Albert (violin), and Amy I-Lin Cheng (piano). Porter's duet with Chen-Ling Liu (dizi, bamboo flute) on "Spring Dawn at Yang-Ming Mountain" is electric, with notes flying up and down and both musicians clearly having fun.
At the DIA the orchestra invites a little girl from
the audience to try out the pi-pa (Chinese lute), a notoriously difficult instrument to learn. The audience is blown away when that girl is "instantly" able to play (she's secretly a ringer from the Ann Arbor Chinese Traditional Music Ensemble). The Michigan Taiwanese American Organization choir and Oakland University Glee Club also surprise by joining the concert from their seats in the audience.
Each concert wraps up with a suite of American songs, with "Yankee Doodle" reminding us of how far we have come since that opening PowerPoint presentation and "What A Wonderful World" made new on traditional Chinese instruments. It is hard not to sing along or think about what a wonderful world it would be with more cross-cultural collaborations like this.
The orchestra is joined by U-M music faculty for a performance on Oct. 7.
[Originally published in October, 2019.]
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