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Getting to know Chinese classical musicians

East Meets West


An eruhist's fingers dance precariously on two steel tightropes tuned to pitches familiar to violinists, the notes A and D. But the erhu is not a truncated violin, nor is it a violin missing two of its strings. It is a venerable instrument of Chinese folk music which has only recently come to the attention of Western audiences. This new interest in the technical and musical possibilities of the erhu is almost solely the work of one musician, Xu Ke.

Xu Ke's career has attracted the kind of praise and attention reserved almost exclusively for the virtuosi of Western instruments. He has earned the sobriquet "the Paganini of the erhu" through both his musicianship and jaw-dropping technical displays. An international array of critics have anointed him a virtuoso, and he has been invited to perform with some of the world's top orchestras.

Xu Ke has pushed the technical limitations of the erhu beyond what anyone else had previously accomplished. He has expanded the range of pitches to more than four octaves, he employs high-pitch harmonics, and he was the first erhuist to use double stops, in which this ordinarily monophonic instrument sings out two notes simultaneously. These innovations allow him to perform dazzling arrangements of Western violin showpieces as well his own compositions.

On Oct. 29, Xu Ke will return to Richmond to participate in a concert intended to acquaint local audiences with the significant contributions of Chinese classical musicians and composers. The concert will benefit The Organization of Chinese Americans (Central Virginia Chapter) and the Richmond Chinese School.

On the same program, The University of Richmond's resident Shanghai Quartet will perform Chinese folk music, songs that violist Honggang Li describes as very familiar to Chinese listeners - as well-known and popular as "I've Got Rhythm" would be to many Americans. Two of the quartet's members will join acclaimed composer Bright Sheng in a performance of Sheng's "Four Movements for Piano Trio." His 1990 work draws from traditional Chinese folk music, "but I stretch the limits," Sheng says. "It has that Chinese folk [music] flavor, but it's a contemporary work." The trio is a panoramic view of the China Sheng knew before emigrating to the United States. He spent seven years of his life in the Quijhai province during the Cultural Revolution, and Sheng observes that "because life was rough and people were poor, the only form of entertainment was singing folk songs. ... I wrote the melody [for the first movement] in the style of that." The second movement, a short, hot, energetic section, reflects Sheng's impressions of the Sezchuan province. The composer describes the third movement as "a savage dance," and the last movement is the only one with a title - "Nostalgia," written at a time when Sheng had just emigrated from China. A new CD release by The Shanghai Quartet and Sheng will feature a new quartet that was jointly commissioned by the University of Richmond and the Smithsonian Institute.

Rounding out the evening, pianist Ren Zhang will offer three knuckle-breaking piano works by Franz Liszt. Joanne Kong will accompany Xu Ke on piano and will also perform selections by Tchaikovsky with Yiwen Jiang, violinist with the Shanghai

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