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  • Maegan Prentice

The Ancient Sound of Chinese Music Meets the Romance of Czarist Russia

Updated: Aug 15, 2020

During my three months in Yantai I was generally very at ease and felt like the people of Yantai and Shanghai were very much like Americans in many ways.  They were very sociable, openly curious, and eager to engage in conversation.  I had several friends whose company I valued and who have remained friends over the years.  In spite of that the experience of hearing Chinese spoken, and of listening to the music of China, often hurt my ears.  Over time I adjusted to the tonality of the spoken language, but my introduction to the erhu was  during one of my last days there.  

My first experience listening to the erhu was at a live performance of Chinese opera in Yantai.  I came to the performance with a slight headache and barely made it through till the end, at which time I had to graciously express my deep interest and gratitude for the experience.  Being, as my kids say, “pathologically honest” it was difficult to find the words to express something positive about my impression of the music.

The erhu is a  traditional Chinese instrument that has some similarities with the western violin, not the least of which is that it can, under certain circumstances, sound like a backyard cat fight.

I left China never expecting to an erhu ever again and, in fact and I didn’t hear it again for several years.

My second exposure to the erhu came while I was trying to find a recording of Tchaikovsky’s Violin Concerto.  There are several versions on youtube and I have my favorite, but sometimes I try out other performances for comparison.  That was how I found an unusual version played by a Chinese American on the erhu.

With nothing but curiosity and no intention of listening through the performance I clicked on the red triangular play button.  Of course nothing unusual showed up in the opening bars, not even a video of the orchestra, only the recording of the orchestra playing over a photo of Tchaikovsky.  The first notes of the violin would normally come almost a minute into the piece, but instead the image shifted to the video of George Gao beginning the opening melody played on this strange two stringed instrument that sounded surprisingly like a violin except for a quality which which some people have referred to as nasal.   Knowing something of the instrument I was surprised that anyone would dream of tackling a Western piece with some serious complexity, but there it was and I was in awe, and still am.

Listening to it just now, before I sat down to write, I realized that I was listening with a different ear from my past exposure.  My ear and my thoughts were tuned to the content of “Intersections” and I heard a completely real and different form of intersection, the intersection of different musical traditions.

I was struck by qualities of this familiar piece that were suddenly more poignant.  It is a piece of music that requires a willingness to reach for the almost impossible heights of emotion. It’s a quality similar to some blues in our culture.  By western standards the erhu normally has the emotionality of a glockenspiel. But being a stringed instrument the possibilities were there, although are easily overlooked. This composition called out the cat like emotions that the instrument possesses.  But the whine, so screeching, becomes more of a searching sound, trying to find the perfect expression of the emotions of the music, ranging from a questioning longing to a determined pursuit.

I must say that I have a favorite performance of the concerto, a young french/japanese woman who brings every part of herself to the performance and loves the musicians that support her.  Together they create a celebration of musical intercourse.  There is also a performance by Joshua Bell that stops me in my mental tracks and commands that I listen. But George Gao’s performance on the erhu brings another dimension that fascinates.  He brings a passion for an ancient Chinese instrument into a dance with one of the greatest pieces of Western music. I hope you enjoy this performance as much as I do

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