The mental image that generally accompanies the word “orchestra” is that of a large mass of European instruments gathered together in front of a wild-haired conductor enthusiastically waving a baton — which is fair, considering that in almost any context this image would be largely accurate. But on occasion the word is applied to an ensemble which defies expectations, shaking off linguistic preconceptions to present the public with something unanticipated. This is the case with the China Broadcasting Chinese Orchestra, which will be performing in Detroit Monday evening under the direction of Pang Kapang.
“It’s a combination of all different types of Chinese traditional instruments — that’s including percussion, strings and wind instruments — but it’s set up very similar to a Western symphonic orchestra,” Wei Yu, principal cellist with the Detroit Symphony Orchestra, said in an interview with The Michigan Daily. “It’s like a large orchestra version of … Chinese traditional instruments.”
The CBCO was founded in 1953, formed by the combination of two previous Chinese orchestras. Over the subsequent decades it has come to stand as a symbol of Chinese culture, led to prominence by conductor and composer Peng Xiuwen.
“The piece I’m playing with the orchestra is … a modern adaption of a very traditional, old folk melody,” Yu said, who will be featured as a soloist on the CBCO concert for the piece Huaer Caprice said. “It’s based on a very well-known film back in the ’60s. The movie is called ‘The Visitors from the Icy Mountain’; the theme song … has become a popular song called ‘Why are the Flowers So Red?’”
The melody, while a folk tune, is actually not Chinese in origin — rather, its roots are Tajik, a designation which refers to a wide range of Persian speaking peoples of Iranian origin. Since “Visitors from the Icy Mountain,” however, the melody has become widely known in China.
“I grew up in mainland China — I know that tune really well,” the cellist said. “(The piece) is such a showcase of the cello and another (Chinese) string instrument … it becomes a virtuoso piece for two solo instruments accompanied by this large orchestra.”
Many of the pieces the CBCO will be presenting are similar — modern arrangements of traditional Chinese folk music — but several are original compositions as well.
“A lot of folk melody is from the voice, or from one single instrument — right now they are adapting a lot of varieties into this kind-of Western kind-of orchestration, or symphonic, version of the tradition,” Yu said.
CBCO is visiting Detroit to celebrate the Chinese New Year. On February 8th the new Year of the Monkey was inaugurated, an event which occurs once every 12 years in the cyclical Chinese calendar .
“The Chinese New Year is celebrated worldwide these days,” Yu said. “Before I joined the DSO I was also a member of the New York Philharmonic. For a few years we started to have a Chinese New Year celebration in concerts.”
The concert, Yu said, touches universal themes of music and ideas of cultural dialogue.
“I’m just really happy to be a cultural ambassador between American and China, together celebrating the Chinese New Year … music is a bridge that links two cultures together,” Yu said. “I’m very proud to be part of the cultural ambassador (sic) using the common language of music … I hope that way to introduce Chinese culture and music to a wider audience, and vice versa.”