Shoutout to the Confucius Institute for hosting another awesome traditional Chinese music performance.
Through 11 beautiful classical Chinese songs I got to hear many beautiful Chinese instruments: the yangqin, zheng, erhu, ruan, pipa, and of course percussion (Look these instruments up they’re all super cool). I was able to hear the instruments play songs on their own, and altogether as an orchestra.
The focus of the night was the yangqin, which is an instrument unlike anything western culture. In western music, most of our classical string instruments just seem to be bigger versions of each other: violin, viola, cello, bass. Chinese music has so many varieties of string instruments and the yangqin is one of the most unique combining a string instrument with percussion. The yangqin’s control over tempo while having the sound of a beautiful string instrument is so special.
I enjoyed that the whole night focused around the yangqin because I was really able to pay attention to the special techniques of the yangqin and listen to how other instruments support the yangqin. The yangqin player Xie Jun is an award winning yangqin player, and I was able to see many masterful techniques I had never seen before. The yangqin is played with a drumstick striking the strings. For the first time ever I saw Xie Jun pluck strings with his fingers, brush the drumstick across the strings to silence them, and use the butt-end of the stick to strum the strings.
Xie Jun really was a master. He didn’t use sheet music for any of the songs and even closed his eyes most of the time that he was playing. This means he didn’t just memorize the pieces but has practiced them so much he has enough muscle memory to not have to look at the instrument while playing.
This was my first time hearing a zheng live. The zheng is one of the coolest instruments I have ever seen. It is similar to a harp, but it a pressure based. The strings are hoisted by a bridge about halfway of the string and while one hand plucks the strings, on the other side of the bridge the other hand bends the string into the note desired.
My favorite song was the 10th song played Spring at the Heavenly Mountain, because of how the erhu complemented the yangqin. I felt a story being told that involved religion and flying insects. The erhu in Autumn Lyrics had a scratchier and whispery sound, which was also very beautiful. It reminded me of a wailing ghost.
The most disappointing aspect of the show was the audience. There were around 30 people there, which considering we were in Mendelssohn theater meant we filled about 5% of the theater. It felt embarrassing to have such a small audience for a group of master musicians. I’d like to say that this was because of the snow and cold weather, but I never students at cultural events void of free food or their friends performing. Half the cultural shows I attend I feel as if I am the lone student there, representing U of M. I know Michigan students like drinking, over studying, and wasting time on their cell phones and it’s disappointing that so much culture is going to die in this next century. I’m so fortunate that the University of Michigan and Ann Arbor still likes to host cultural events for the few of us that appreciate it. The few of us that were at this show enjoyed it so much we were able to get a double encore out of the orchestra.