On March 3, 2012 Butterfly Lovers: Musical Impressions of Modern China took place at the Oakland Asian Cultural Center in Oakland, California. It was the 2012 edition of the China’s Spirit Music Ensemble (CSME) annual concerts. The concert was filled with exciting, memorable moments.
“Butterfly Lovers” centered around an instrument called “guzheng” (pronounced: ‘goo-jung’) a Chinese twenty-one string zither that has movable bridges to accommodate multiple tunings and is characterized by a bright, shimmering Asian sound.
The 2012 CSME configuration includes a group of 21 female performers spanning an age range from 6 to 23. The ensemble is led by guzheng virtuoso Winnie Wong.
The concert opened with the ensemble seated at their guzhengs dressed in bright orange silk. They played “Liu Yang River” a 1950’s era folk song from Hunan province.
Next in the program was a medley of tunes called “Hong Kong Glory” and the ensemble was joined by sax master Gary Schwantes. Three tunes were featured: “Blooming Passion Flower” (1960’s), “Insane Dream of a Genius” (1970’s), and “Time and Tide” (1980’s). The set was dedicated to Winnie Wong’s mother who listed these songs among her favorites.
The medley transitioned into a piece for solo guzheng called “Battling the Typhoon” played by Kimberly Wong. The piece got its title from composer Wang Chang Yuan who was inspired by port workers who were strenuously performing their duties in the midst of an intense typhoon. The stormy feel of the composition was expertly delivered by Kimberly Wong on the solo guzheng.
One of the strengths of CSME is it’s ability to break into smaller ensembles showcasing the talents of notable performers in the group. The CSME youth ensemble played a Chinese childrens song called “Young Ladies Picking Mushrooms” followed by the silk ensemble who played “On the banks of the Yili River” a Xinjiang melody.
A bright Asian fusion sound started the second half courtesy of Ultra World X-tet who brought a jazz sensibility to the mix. The addition of bass, drums, saxophone and the Chinese flute called ‘dizi’ brought a dynamic, exciting feel to the concert.
Featured tunes included: Highlands of Tibet a song invoking images of the Tibetan plateau, expressing the hopes and dreams of Tibetan people for Tibet. Followed by “Night Market Brothers” a fun and catchy melody about a famous night market in Xinjiang province where many local people go for drinks, hang out with old friends and make new ones.
“The Lament of Rainbow Cloud” was truly a gem and one of the concert’s highlights. It featured Winnie Wong as guzheng soloist accompanied by Frances Martin on piano.
The song is based on an old Tang Dynasty Poem “Song of Lasting Sorrow” which describes the tragic love story between an emperor who is forced to order the execution of his beloved concubine. Thus the composition has the feel of both tenderness and loss creating a mood that is at once sorrowful and touching.
Winnie Wong’s playing was truly impassioned on “Lament of Rainbow Cloud”. Filled with emotion, she made the guzheng truly weep. Frances Martin complemented the ethos of the piece perfectly with her broad orchestral piano style. The piano and guzheng worked marvelously together bringing the composition to life.
The crown jewel among the evenings many jewels was “Butterfly Lovers Concerto”. This composition was written in 1959 by composers He Zhanhao and Chen Gang. Butterfly Lovers is one of the most famous Chinese folktales to reach audiences worldwide.
The tale is about two lovers who were forbidden by their families to marry in life but later in death become butterflies who are free to love and free to fly away. In the program it reads: “arrag. Winnie Wong”. The role and talent of the arranger is often overlooked and in the background of most musical productions, but it really sparkled in this performance.
“Butterfly Lovers Concerto” was originally written for Western style orchestra with a violin as the lead instrument. Hence, arranging it for guzheng ensemble was a formidable task. The guzheng is normally an instrument that is tuned to a five note pentatonic scale, for this concerto however it had to accommodate a seven note tuning and the performers had to be instructed on where to move the instruments bridges on the fly to prepare for key modulations within the piece.
The piece came off remarkably well. Winnie Wong’s rendition of the lead violin part was passionate and beautiful. Her tremolo effects and unique note bending technique accurately emulated arco violin bowing and legato transitions between notes. She was backed by the full resources of the ensemble who played the orchestral parts skillfully, delighting the audience. One could easily imagine the flutter of colorful butterfly wings flying delicately from flower to flower.
Butterfly Lovers is the perfect example of what modern Chinese music is about: an ancient Chinese legend transformed into a symphonic masterpiece that can flourish in the western musical world without losing its authenticity. Morphed into a guzheng concerto it moved even deeper to its Chinese roots.
The “Butterfly Lovers” concert was a great success. CSME and associated musicians proved themselves top notch performers who exhibited exceptional musicianship. The show was filled with exotic instruments, awe inspiring arrangements, a colorful, lively stage presence, and beautiful melodies. Hopefully we will see more of CSME for many years to come.
Where to get the music:
The Ultra World X-Tet CD Moon and Legend is available from CD Baby.
CSME 2010 review
Ultra World X-tet
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