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#AndrewSingerChina Newsletter Vol. 2, Issue 1

Happy Dragon Boat Festival (端午节快乐)! The Chinese Music Ensemble of New York is celebrating its 60th anniversary this year (one year late due to Covid). When I received an announcement of a conductor talk and open rehearsal of the Ensemble to be held the same late May weekend that I was recently in New York City, I jumped at the chance and immediately registered. I am so glad I did. The video links throughout this first issue of Volume 2 lead to beautiful music.

  • Chinese Classical Music and the Chinese Music Ensemble of New York

  • One More Thought (Erhu out in Public – Boston and Seattle)


Chinese Classical Music and the Chinese Music Ensemble of New York

The China Institute sponsored a conductor talk and open rehearsal by the Chinese Music Ensemble of New York. The group, the oldest and largest Chinese orchestra in the United States, is comprised of some fifty conservatory students and more seasoned players. Acclaimed conductor Jindong Cai is serving as guest musical director and principal conductor for its upcoming 60th anniversary concert at Carnegie Hall on June 18th.

Jindong Cai is soft-spoken, open, and engaging. He began his talk by noting that music serves to help maintain people-to-people connections in troubling times. Music was important to the literati throughout Imperial Chinese history. It developed independently of European traditions and was designed mostly for solo playing.

Jindong Cai

When Western-style music was introduced into China during the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, ensembles began to form. Some of the early adopters of organized orchestral groups at that time included Li Shutong, Xiao Youmei, and Rudolph Buck, and groups such as the Peking University Orchestra, Shanghai Public Band, and Datong Chinese Ensemble.

During the middle of the twentieth century, popular music became revolutionary in China. Beethoven was out, and Communist compositions, such as Jiang Qing’s eight model operas of the Cultural Revolution period, were the authorized music for the masses. Music during this time was designed to shape and change people in a desired direction.

And then, in 1973, another historic swerve occurred. As part of Richard Nixon’s reaching out to China, the Philadelphia Orchestra became the first American orchestra to perform in China. This unleashed a renewed “Beethoven fever” in the country. As shown in the following slide, Beethoven’s name previously had been translated into Chinese in eleven different ways before 贝多芬 (貝多芬), Bei Duo Fen, ultimately won out.

Conductor Cai mentioned that he was one of the producers of the 2020 documentary of this 1973 trip, Beethoven in Beijing. When chatting with him, I mentioned that I have written about another 2020 documentary, Behind the Strings, profiling the Shanghai Quartet (Andrew’s China Newsletter August 10, 2021). I shouldn’t have been surprised (but I was) when he told me that he knew the original Quartet members since they traveled in similar circles in the late 1970’s and early 1980’s in China.

Pipa and Zhongruan

A Chinese orchestra is composed of four sections—plucked strings, bow strings, winds, and percussion. There is no brass section. Instruments in a Chinese orchestra include entire pipa and erhu sections, zhongruan (round fretted lute), yangqin (hammered dulcimer), guzheng (zither), suona (horn), sheng (mouth organ), dizi (flute), barrel drums, and more. To add further nuance, there are different types of erhu, including simply erhu, gaohu, and zhonghu. Each plays a different tonal range.


Many of the instruments now considered classical Chinese instruments originated in the Middle East or elsewhere and traveled over the Silk Road to China in early Imperial times. Once in China, they were adapted over generations. Shapes changed. Different tunings were adopted. Repertoires were altered and expanded. For example, the straight-necked pipa that is now so recognizably Chinese originally had a bent neck. The double-reed suona horn, originally from Iran, is a compact instrument with a distinctive, high-pitched sound that carries to the far corners of the room.

Dizi, Sheng, Suona

Conductor Cai worked patiently with his players, moving from section to section and even instrument to instrument. He emphasized tempo, volume, melody, and feeling. He often sang and clapped his side in time as they played. He walked among them to focus on different elements of the song. He gave praise and instruction.

The rehearsing orchestra might play for a few minutes or only several seconds before a teaching moment was emphasized. While he initially spoke to his musicians in English for the audience’s benefit, Conductor Cai eventually switched to Chinese as the rehearsal progressed. But even here, he took the time to speak with the audience to share with us what we were hearing and why.

The orchestra plays classical pieces spanning the long history and geography of China from “the early dynasty era to modern days.” The group practiced portions of two pieces at the open rehearsal.

The first piece was a Cantonese folk song composition in four parts by Wu Hua reflecting dragon boat racing, happiness and peace, a full moon, and thunder in a cloudless sky. Such rhythmic and enchanting folk songs tell the story of traditional life in and around Guangzhou and the Pearl River Delta in Southern China.

The second piece was an original composition by Jiang Ying, entitled “Journey Along the Silk Road.” This folk orchestral work is a symphonic blend of Chinese and Western music characteristics with various Middle Eastern, Xinjiang, and Spanish-style elements. The music evokes mystery and intrigue and builds to a vibrant, pulsating crescendo expressing that “…like pilgrimages from all over the world, lives, passions, and dreams are transformed under the moon along the Silk Road.”

Anchi Lin is one of the co-Directors of the Orchestra and an accomplished erhu player. The human communication potential of music is what drives her playing. She shared with me that “in music, we can absorb, integrate, and transform foreign elements and reanimate them into something new, beautiful, and exciting. All differences and variations contribute to a very diverse representation of new cultural elements....The range of erhu highly resembles the human vocal ranges. The musical expressions of erhu are rich and profound. This is the instrument that can accompany me through times of joy and sorrow.”

The Chinese Music Ensemble of New York is justifiably proud of its six-decade-long history. Surviving and thriving for so long is not an easy feat and takes a great deal of dedication, effort, and perseverance. During Covid, they produced two, full-length, online concerts on YouTube to share their music, one in 2020 and another 2021. Now, this month, they are able to perform for a live audience. If you are near New York City on June 18, 2022, I highly recommend attending this anniversary concert.


One More Thought (Erhu out in Public – Boston and Seattle)

In years past, while out walking, I have twice happened upon elderly gentlemen playing the erhu in public and lingered to listen. This first video link is of an erhu player in the Boston Public Garden, and the second video link is from a Seattle sidewalk.


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