Friday, October 17, 2014

Carmen in Uyghur-land

I attended a fantastic concert tonight, and my first in Urumqi--the opening concert for the 3rd Academic Conference on Traditional Chinese Medicine, Western Medicine, and Uyghur Medicine. (Can you imagine if academic conferences on any subject in the States or U.K. devoted an entire evening to hosting a three-hour musical gala?) The performers were faculty and students from the Xinjiang Arts Institute, and the ensemble was a Uyghur music take on the Western orchestral setting--ghijak standing in for violin, bass rebab comingled with cellos and actual upright basses, many other instruments whose names I don't know that most certainly don't have direct equivalents Western classical music...

Arranging Uyghur instruments in an orchestral layout is a phenomenon of the last fifty years (as it is with Chinese instruments such as in the Hong Kong Chinese Orchestra). It's an interesting aesthetic--trying to emulate the composition of a Western orchestra with different timbres, and certainly different instrumental techniques and musical styles. The concert included many traditional and folk songs from Xinjiang as well as Uzbekistan and Azerbaijan arranged for the ensemble and featuring singers and solo instrumentalists. My absolute favorites were the ghijak soloist (Track 5) and one of the singers (Tracks 3 and 4). I will post the video later, but one thing that was so striking about this performance (and the concert in general) was that it seemed like there were no barriers, but rather a fluid connection, between the performers and audience. The performers and audience members were active participants in the concert, each equally providing an essential service of sorts. As you can hear in the audio, people would start cheering when they heard something they liked.  The onstage solo players, on top of being excellent musicians, were extremely expressive performers and treated the act of performance very holistically--they had chops and were great at engaging the audience. They looked like there was nothing else they would rather do but play for the crowd, and their passion shone through.  

There were also a few ritzy opera arias in the concert for good measure. If I have learned anything about cross-cultural musical exchange in these few months, it is that no matter where in the world you are and what instrument you are playing, people go wild for Bizet's Carmen (Track 6). There's a story in that somewhere (and I won't settle for "sex sells")--I will have to keep probing for the reason and report back.