Tuesday, September 16, 2014

A Mid-Autumn Crisis

Last Friday marked my double debut on erhu and violin in Hong Kong. Sitting onstage before the concert, I felt like the obvious black sheep as the only non-Hong Konger in City University's Chinese Orchestra. I anticipated the audience members' thoughts as they ogled me: "Who does she think she is, holding an erhu and attempting to play Chinese music?" Or even more simply: "White girl with an erhu? This is gonna be good."

While no one in the orchestra had been unkind (and I made good friends with some of the players), they had been standoffish and aloof at first--not sure how to regard the random outsider who had showed up with an erhu a few weeks before their concert. They all seemed to mean well, but even though nearly all of them were bilingual in English they avoided using it at all costs, leaving me in the dark except when absolutely necessary. Not that I expected them to change the language of the rehearsal or go out of their way to include me--but in any case I was a de facto alien. I couldn't tell what they thought of me, and while I didn't care about being out of place linguistically, I felt the isolation acutely as I struggled to keep up playing music that wasn't "my own" on an instrument that wasn't "my own." Which leads to a question, or perhaps comment, I have received multiple times since starting to learn erhu and practice Chinese music: "Since you are not Chinese, can you play Chinese music?" People don't ask to be insulting, though some do have firm opinions on the matter--they are genuinely curious, as am I, if the ability to learn and play Chinese music relies upon membership in a community with some shared experience of culture, history, and region. From my erhu teacher telling me that Guangdong style is just too hard to teach if you aren't familiar with it, to one of the players in the Chinese Orchestra telling me that he didn't think it was possible for non-Chinese to play Chinese music, recently I was really questioning whether my efforts--and this year's project in general--were misguided and inevitably pointless.

Photo compilation by one of the CityU Chinese Orchestra players
While I previously mentioned my excitement to be asked to play solos on violin with the Chinese Orchestra in addition to playing erhu with the ensemble, after I eagerly agreed, a general feeling of unease set in. They had asked me to play a solo violin piece ("Play Czardas! Play Ziguenerweisen!" they asked, naming two flashy crowd-pleasers from the violin repertoire) but given that the rest of the concert featured traditional Chinese music played by an ensemble, the prospect of me playing a Western classical showpiece by myself seemed very out of place, and even somewhat profane ("Don't worry--it's fusion!" they said when I voiced my concerns). I also didn't really know what place I had playing a solo--there were plenty of talented performers in the ensemble, why not feature one of them? Nonetheless, I wasn't going to turn down their request that I play violin in the concert, so I told them that I would come up with some solo piece to play, and that I also wanted to play a Chinese piece on violin. (They seemed a bit baffled as to why I would want to do that, but went with it.) At the very least, I figured the casual concert was a good chance for me to test out the solo Kreisler piece I had been working on, and wasn't combining multiple music traditions the exact theme of my Watson Project? 

We rehearsed the Chinese piece for the first time a few days before the performance. Rehearsals with the Chinese Orchestra were a stark contrast with my rehearsals with the MIT Symphony--I don't think there was ever a moment the players weren't chattering away happily as the conductor tried to keep everyone's attention. Everyone had amicably ignored me until that day--when I started playing the Cantonese opera piece on violin, the room became noticeably quieter as the players came to grips with the fact that the non-Chinese girl was playing a traditional song they knew well on violin. I had 'studied' the piece the day before, listening to recordings of singers performing the piece and notating their embellishments and slides to incorporate into my own playing. When I finished, the room burst into applause, and I breathed a sigh of relief. "Sounds great!" my erhu teacher told me. "Play freely! You can improvise naturally--we will follow you!" I guess I had emulated the Cantonese singer well-enough to convince him that I knew what organic improvisation in Cantonese opera style would sound like. This point was lost on him--he continued to encourage me to add ornamentations to my liking. I was terrified by this prospect--at least half of the time, my own musical add-ons sound more like psuedo-country music drawling rather than the falling sighs of erhu sliding.

From that day on, the players started to talk to me, and I came to realize that they weren't discouraging my erhu and Chinese music pursuits, but just curious and even gratified by my interest in the music. A percussionist told me she was so excited to meet a foreign player of Chinese music, and an erhu player played me some Paganini on erhu and told me about a Xinjiang-style erhu piece whose title he translated as "Grape Grows Up" (I later found out the more commonly accepted translation is "The Grapes are Ripe," but isn't "Grape Grows Up" so much cuter?)

The concert was highly casual. It was held at a covered outdoor performance space at City University of Hong Kong in honor of the Mid-Autumn Festival, the performers wearing orchestra tees-shirts and jeans. The atmosphere was very laid-back (if immensely hot and humid), and sitting onstage, I wasn't nervous because I could sense how low the audience's expectations were (I mean this in only the best of ways--it was the perfect environment for me to make my onstage erhu debut!) The performance itself was hardly flawless--perhaps a little less talking in rehearsals would have addressed that--but the players' enthusiasm was palpable, and more than compensated for shortcomings in execution. (A few of my new pals, international students from Hong Kong University who had never heard Chinese music before, kindly came to the performance and stayed to the bitter end, proving themselves true friends. "It was really...interesting!" they said.)

Here's an abridged video of the concert--

As I got up for my Cantonese opera violin solo, I wasn't nervous at all, but after the applause, when my solo Kreisler moment arrived I was met with a wave of nerves and adrenaline, combined with sweaty hands and shaking knees. (Video of my solo parts below.) Knowing the only way out was through, I launched into the piece. At the time, I was sure it went terribly, but looking back, though it was far from perfect it actually went quite well under the circumstances, and was well-received. My one regret is that in my mortification I didn't give a proper bow and instead went power-walking off the stage, defying my life mantra to "fake it 'till you make it." 

A quick photo interlude--pictures from a Mid-Autumn Festival celebration in one of Hong Kong's neighborhoods:

Chiu Chow opera performance
If you didn't know any better, it could be the Austin City Limits Music Festival

My friend said these were "priests reading aloud the Taoist bible," so that's the best I can do to describe this scene

Later that weekend, I went to the premiere performance of Alexis' new work, Shadow in the Moon, a Peter and the Wolf-like narrated chamber work for Western and Chinese instruments that tells the story of the Mid-Autumn Festival. The ensemble consisted of a pianist, a violinist, an erhu player, a clarinetist, a dizi (Chinese flute) player, a guzheng (plucked zither) player, a cellist, and a Chinese percussionist--so definitely not the typical octet. Alexis had partnered with a writer, Christina, who just published a children's book about the Mid-Autumn Festival story, and used the book's text as inspiration for the piece. Since the performance was geared toward children, I wasn't sure what to expect of the music, but the two times I heard the piece in the dress rehearsal and the actual concert, I teared up--the music Alexis composed is gorgeous and moving, and highlights the instruments' similarities and contrasting timbres flawlessly. (Also, seeing all of the families together enjoying the music got me a little emotional, too...) It was striking how she combined the instruments--for instance, the sounds of the violin and the erhu complemented each other, but were in no way interchangeable substitutes. Similarly, it was interesting to hear the guzheng player pluck a passage, and then hear the cellist say, "I liked how you played that--let me try that interpretation for my part," adding some lyrical slides to his own version of the same melody. There are moments in the music that conjure the sound of Chinese folk songs, and others that bring the passion and lyricism of Romantic era serenades--and it all works. While I had come to the performance wondering whether the music and text would resonate with the audience (myself included), watching the children literally dance in the aisles and feeling myself moved by the music, I was truly wowed by what Alexis had accomplished--a true cross-cultural masterpiece. It was so well-received that I think there's talk of turning it into a perennial Hong Kong performance for the Mid-Autumn Festival, as well as part of a larger musical project about Chinese festivals and legends.
Alexis addressing the players at the dress rehearsal
Alexis and Christina at the premiere
I talked to Alexis later about my concerns about being an "outsider" when it comes to Chinese, or more generally, non-Western classical, music--I figured that as her compositional career and own erhu study center around the notion that non-Chinese can approach Chinese music, she would have some insight and opinions on the matter. "You know, when I was in music grad school, Yo-Yo Ma was still new in the music world and making a name for himself, and people said that there was an 'Asian' way of playing classical music--that you could hear it in his playing," she said. "No one says that anymore. Thanks to globalization, Chinese music is all around the world--Chinese music is the world's music." She talked about the difference between trying to distill Chinese music to a formula ("like bad Hollywood music--I'm not trying to be a fake Chinese musician") and studying it and understanding it enough to be influenced by it. As for learning erhu: "I think that anyone, if they put in the time and practice, can learn to play in the style at a high level." It was encouraging to talk with her, and especially seeing how successfully she has created cohesive musical from multiple cultures I am convinced it is not time for me to throw in the towel on my own project just yet.

Hard to beat this commute, eh?

Flashing our matching Wellesley bling
A few final photos and a story--I got together for tea with a Wellesley alum, who was totally lovely to hang out with. It turns out that her son plays violin and is in a chamber music group with some other seventh grade boys, so I offered to coach them. In case you haven't been around seventh grade boys for a while--it's crazy, I tell you. A few were constantly talking and easily distracted, while others were immensely shy--and it was my job to get them to play an arrangement of the highly passionate Intermezzo from Mascagni's opera Cavalleria Rusticana. My work was indeed cut out for me, but knowing that they would spiral out of control if they sensed any insecurity from me, I balanced positive encouragement with sass and condescension to keep them on task and amused. Having  been in a chamber music group with my friends as a seventh grader and been the recipient of hundreds of hours of chamber music coaching over the years, it was fun to have come full circle--preaching about the importance of eye contact, clear cues, and bringing out the viola melodies.

"Do I have to cue, too?" the cellist whined.
"Yes, and you're going to do it right now. Feel free to cue at any time. We'll all wait for you."
"My hands are sweating!"
"I'm sorry, that must be very stressful for you. You still have to cue. And you with the pizzicato!" I addressed the extremely timid second violinist, who hadn't said a word. "You need to play it at least three times as loud. Everyone's relying on you for the beat, so don't actually break your string, but get really close."

Just call me "Cadet Kelly." Or "Quartet Kelly"--too much of a stretch?