Tuesday evening’s Intermezzi IV outing at the Cathedral Church of St. Luke & St. Paul featured the four excellent Chinese traditional instrumentalists who comprise the orchestral core for this year’s production of the Chinese opera Feng Yi Ting. While I’m far from an expert on Chinese classical music, I thoroughly enjoyed the eight different works (including two world premieres) that they performed for us, either as soloists or in ensemble. Each is an internationally recognized virtuoso of his or her instruments.
Chen Yihan is one of the world’s reigning virtuosos of the pipa, a kind of Chinese lute with the unique sort of plucked or strummed “twang” that is characteristic of native Asian music. Hong-Da Chin is a master of the dadi and dizi, variants of the Chinese bamboo flute. These, like western flutes, are played in the transverse position, and sound surprisingly similar to western flutes, though with a somewhat softer, woody tone. Wang Guowei is the group’s bowed-string expert, playing the erhu (often called the Chinese violin) and its variants, the higher-toned gaohu and lower-pitched zhonghu. Last but not least is Wang Hong, a brilliant player of the guanzi, a double-reed wind instrument with an especially varied range of appealing sound. He also plays the sheng, a kind of multi-reed mouth organ.
The first three works were all examples of traditional Chinese music, either in original form or arrangements. The first of them, A Moonlit Night on the Spring River, involved all four players in ensemble. It projected the impressionistic feel and image of the beauties of the Yangtze River in springtime. Next came Variations on the Song of Yang Guan, a haunting solo number from Wang Hong’s supremely expressive guanzi that effectively portrayed the mixed emotions engendered by a dear friend’s departure. Chen Yihan then transfixed her listeners with a gripping pipa solo, King Chu Doffs his Armor, which dramatically depicts in music the first military defeat of an ancient Chinese king who thought he was invincible, complete with stylized battle sounds.