Music from East to West - the erhu, zheng, gamelan and percussion
An interview article by Rosemary Phillips, 2003 (revised 2010)
Orchid Ensemble - Lan Tung, Jonathan Bernard, Haiqiong Deng Photo by Art Illman
From fingers to hands to hearts - that’s the quest of Orchid
Ensemble, a group of diverse virtuosic musicians brought together
through their passion for this delicate and sensitive art form -
music which weaves a tapestry of magical sounds of East and West.
From the classical traditions of China to rhythms of Persia and
contemporary works, Orchid Ensemble - Lan Tung on erhu (a two-stringed
fiddle held on the lap), Haiqiong Deng on zheng (a 21 string zither) and
Jonathan Bernard, marimba and percussion - is evolving and creating
it’s own place in Canadian culture.
Just as growing orchids is an exotic form of gardening, Orchid Ensemble
provides an exotic form of music full of precision and beauty. And
like an orchid opening its petals, the ensemble has come into full
blossom as it travels from one end of the continent to the other
performing at concert halls, festivals, cultural and educational
institutions (from primary grades to post graduates), introducing
traditional and contemporary works from various regions in China,
and commissioned pieces from composers of various ethnic backgrounds.
A highlight of a recent tour (2003) was a performance at the Kennedy Center
for the Performing Arts in Washington. "It was really exciting,"
explained Lan Tung. "We had quite a crowd, that included people
from Mexico and South America, who cheered us after every piece."
Lan Tung - founder of Orchid Ensemble, plays the erhu
Lan Tung, founder of the group, was ten years old when she was
first introduced to the erhu. "I was fortunate enough to be
attending school when they were looking for students my age to form
a Chinese orchestra. The orchestra and my father picked out the
erhu for me. My father liked the sweet folk songs and was hoping
for me to play them for him one day, but it took a long time for
that to happen because I was first led to playing more of the classical
Lan came to Canada from Taiwan in 1994. "I was attending the
Chinese Cultural University at the time, studying erhu performance,
when my father decided that the whole family had to move here. I
was offered opportunities to play but needed people to play with."
So Lan turned to jamming with musicians at cafés and clubs
trying her hand at a variety of styles from Gypsy to Celtic before
forming Orchid Ensemble. "This is the most flexible Chinese
ensemble I have played with," she explained. "It is fortunate
to have musicians who are willing to step outside tradition. The
direction we are working on is more creative improvisation in the
repertoire, much like in jazz. Each year we produce a feature concert
with different musicians from different genres of music - from African
to Klezmer, Iranian, and Japanese taikos."
Jonathan Bernard plays gamelan, marimba and percussion
Meanwhile, Jonathan Bernard is thoroughly enjoying the cultural exchange. "While I’m
being introduced to Lan's culture I get to
introduce her to the beauty of this country. That’s part
of the touring experience - to see the areas we go to, the people,
the sights and culture. It’s very special to be involved in
this exchange where I am learning about a whole other tradition
with colours that strengthen my own involvement in other styles
of music making."
Jonathan’s interest in Asian music was casual at first, playing
the gamelan at UBC. "They are the most beautiful magical percussion
instruments. I was drawn as much to the gorgeous ringing metals
(bells and gongs) as to the style of music."
Then he met others who were playing various styles that combined
music from the East and West. As principal percussionist with the
Vancouver Island Symphony and member of chamber music groups, Jonathan
was fascinated with the possibilities of combining traditions. "So
when an opening came up in Lan’s group I was excited about
adding marimba and other forms of percussion. I knew the possibilities
Jonathan speaks with passion about the repertoire and performance
style. "The music can’t be classified in one specific
genre. Our repertoire is so diverse that we can perform to a wide
variety of audiences, from folk festivals to intimate chamber music
concerts. This is chamber music as we know it in the West, but it
uses instruments from China.
"The goal of any performer is to lose yourself in the music,
to become that music. And when you are one of three members on stage
you have to be very expressive and convincing. It is imperative
to work together - it comes through in the music. Chamber music
is such an intimate form of music making. If you don’t have
that intimacy then there’s not the magic."
"1,000 Miles to Kashgar"
Orchid Ensemble has that magic. Their music transports the listener
through time and space. Orchid Ensemble now embarks upon the next
step in their career, with a second recording "10,000 Miles
to Kashgar" featuring newly developed and commissioned works
focussing on ancient Persia's historic influence on China, via the
Silk Road. Their recent tour helped to solidify several ideas ready
for the studio. "Audience response helped us work with subtle
changes, listening and evaluating," says Jonathan.
"I have a dream to take this music to China," adds Lan.
"Last year I was in Beijing making contacts ready for the future.
We want to share our musical experience with the world."
Like a full blooming orchid in a flower show, the ensemble stands
out among the blossoms, serenely, majestically simple and pure -
with beauty of sound to touch hearts the world over.
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