By Maria Chow, Ph.D
The Shen Yun Performing Arts Orchestra is a tour de force that combines Western and Chinese musical instruments to create a unique whole. Currently it is the world’s only orchestra that embraces both Western and Chinese instruments as permanent members.
The practice of deploying Wes-tern and Chinese instrumental timbre simultaneously in musical compositions is about seventy years old.
Since the 1920s, the Chinese have trod many paths in exploring compositional styles and orchestration techniques to capture China’s rich traditions, both old and new, with musical sounds.
A hybrid fruit of the effort is the modern Chinese orchestra, modeled after the Western orchestra. It is composed of different families of Chinese instruments—plucked-string, bowed-string, wind, and percussion; each family is structured into soprano, alto, tenor, and bass. Most of the instruments have been modified multiple times in order to achieve better intonation, brighter tone quality, and wider range in pitch and dynamics.
Yet the kind of instrumental combination offered by the Shen Yun Performing Arts Orchestra, another fruit of the experiment, has never ceased to be in vogue. At the foundation of the Shen Yun Performing Arts Orchestra are the four families of Western orchestral instruments—strings, woodwind, brass, and percussion. This keeps the orchestra free from the intonation problems that incessantly haunt the modern Chinese orchestra in the performance of works created with Western harmonization principles.
Although based on the Western foundation, the Shen Yun Performing Arts Orchestra also incorporates Chinese instruments such as the bamboo flute, the two-string erhu, and the plucked-string pipa. Each of these Chinese instruments is capable of invoking a wide range of imageries through different instrumental techniques and timbres. The flute, for instance, can summon to mind the scene of celestial maidens flying in the air with their flutes, or the view of a young boy shepherding his sheep in the field. Likewise, while the erhu can be extremely soulful with heart-touching melodies, its ability to glide from one register to another enables it to imitate sounds ranging from birds chirping to horses neighing.
Moreover, the orchestra takes advantage of the large pull of percussion instruments used in China’s regional music, seasoning its performance with unique instrumental flavor. The audience should look forward to hearing its recently expanded percussion section with ethnic instruments acquired from Xinjiang and other areas in China.
The orchestra includes current and former members of major orchestras in the United States, China, and Europe. Some members were previously persecuted in China simply for being classical musicians or for following traditional spiritual practices such as Falun Gong.
But in spite of their diverse backgrounds, the members of the orchestra are brought together by their love of traditional Chinese arts and culture, which can be seen through the theatrical dances the orchestra accompanies. These focus on the values traditionally treasured by the Chinese people—compassion, honesty, loyalty, and reverence for the divine.
Creatively combining Western and Chinese instruments and being dedicated to rekindling traditional arts and culture has become the hallmark of the Shen Yun Performing Arts Orchestra. With its artistically ambitious performance each year, the orchestra is pioneering a new direction in the world of performing arts.
Shen Yun is playing at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion, the Music Center, located at 135 North Grand Ave. Los Angeles, CA 90012 It will play on July 8th, 9th at 7 p.m., July 10th at 2 p.m. and 7pm, and July 11th at 2 p.m. They can be reached at 1-800-880-0188, or at their website at www.laspectacular.com. Tickets can also be purchased at www.TicketMaster.com. Ticket prices range from $70 – $280. The show is appropriate for everyone over 3 years old.
Maria Chow is a music historian specializing in the music of twentieth-century China.