Music review: Chinese Music Festival at Samueli Theater

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Recognizing the reality of China as a rising, major world power, Carnegie Hall built a festival, Ancient Paths, Modern Voices, that is digging deep into the mainstream and back country of Chinese culture this fall.

The good news for us is that we don’t have to hop a plane to experience it, for Carnegie Hall has taken a partner for the first time, the Orange County Philharmonic Society. That in itself is a recognition of another reality – that artistic leadership in this country is increasingly coming from the West Coast, and those who still cling to worn-out East Coast biases are missing the boat.


As far as the musical component is concerned, the Orange County edition seems like a junior partner, for there are only four such events here, whereas the New York schedule lists about 20.

Nevertheless, “Musical Journeys Through China” – the first, and easily the most esoteric concert to come our way Tuesday night in the Samueli Theater at the Orange County Performing Arts Center – looked like a duplicate of an event in New York’s Zankel Hall on Saturday; only the title had changed.

Wu Man, the peripatetic virtuoso of the pipa (a Chinese lute), was the curator and host, but we didn’t hear much of her playing. Rather, she was there mostly to introduce a pair of family bands from deep within the Chinese heartland, playing traditional music that even she was unaware of until fairly recently.

As a kind of orientation, Wu Man presented a 10-minute film of her journeys through China in search of her country’s folk traditions.

One thing in the film that struck me is a common dilemma that all world cultures seem to be facing – how to keep their traditions going in the face of the onslaught of American pop culture that grabs hold of the young everywhere. The film’s brief glimpse of a Chinese rock group said it all; the boys sounded indistinguishable from your average bar band down the block.

In the case of the Zhang Family Band, you can assume that the missing ingredient for young listeners isn’t a burst of adrenaline.

Hailing from Shaanxi province, the seven-member band began its set with an exuberant shout and an infectious groove on ancient folk instruments. One crazed-looking fellow repeatedly struck what looked like a wooden block onto a wooden sawhorse, producing a deafening crack.

With gongs crashing and atonal screeches on a trumpet-like horn, this band made a loud, glorious racket, often reminding me of the more anarchic moments of jazz’s Art Ensemble of Chicago. It also provided appropriate soundtracks to shadow puppet shows, one of which depicted a pitched battle in sight and sound. Wu Man sat in on the final number, but her pipa was virtually inaudible.

If the Zhangs are of the earth, the Li Family Daoist Band from Shanxi province represented the spirit. In compressing a ritual that can last for days down to a manageable 35 minutes, these six men dressed in red, green and black robes concentrated on establishing meditative drones on two shengs (Chinese mouth organs), drum and guanzi oboe that sped up and slowed down. All was not solemn here, though, for the ceremony included some clowning around as one sheng player pulled a Rahsaan Roland Kirk by playing two shengs at once.

Thus, for all of the strangeness of this music, perhaps the unintended message of this remarkable concert was: It’s all one world of sound.

-- Richard S. Ginell

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