The summer of 2013 brought many gems of Asian Music to the Bay Area and one of the brightest stars was the 10th anniversary concert of China’s Spirit Music Ensemble (CSME).
From its humble beginnings at a recital in a small bay area church 11 years ago CSME has grown to encompass students of many backgrounds and age ranges. Under the direction of founder and instructor Winnie Wong, CSME has seen some of the Bay Areas most talented performers emerge from its ranks.
The ensemble centers around the Chinese zither called guzheng, pronounced “goo-jhung” This 3000 year old zither has an illustrious history and Mrs. Wong and her students did an exceptional job of bringing some of that history to the audience during their 10th anniversary concert.
The performance began with the full ensemble of 11 young women dressed elegantly in colorful silk who played the theme to the 1980s film Shao Lin Temple. Class of 2013 graduating senior Cindy Voong was the featured soloist. The evening progressed with “Kanding Love Song” a folk melody from a picturesque town called Kanding in Sichuan province.
The concert continued with a guzheng duet called “Flower and Youth” featuring performers Sabrina Ho and Sabrina Ma. Flower and Youth is a Hui Minority love song from Qinghai province. “Flower and Youth” represents a courtship folk singing tradition. Songs are sung to young ladies by their admirers. One of the characteristics of the style is the singer does not immediately reveal the person who is the inspiration of his love rather the admired one is described as a certain type of flower. In this tradition the flowers are metaphors for young ladies and the men are just described as “youth”.
Each year for the CSME annual concert Mrs. Wong gives a few bright students a chance to display their individual passion and talent towards music by giving them an opportunity as student soloist. The first soloist of the evening was Hedda Nguyen who has been playing under the direction of Mrs. Wong for seven years. Ms. Nguyen skillfully played “Dance of the Tong Tribe” a lively and rhythmic tune of the lesser known Tong minority who live in Hunan province.
Another guzheng solo followed: “Dance of the Yi Tribe”, a Yi Minority folk dance melody. The people of the Yi tribe are known for their colorful clothing and their passion for music and dance. Dance of the Yi Tribe depicts a scene where young men and women dance around a campfire in the Yi village. The soloist was Jenny Zheng who was poised and confident in her playing a beautiful presence on stage she played with excellent technique making the solo guzheng sound like a full orchestra.
The next piece on the program, “Shan Dan Blossoming Brilliantly Red” from Shanbei province embodies the sorrows and hopes of Chinese peasants. The Shanbei folk songs are sung almost shouted in a nasal tone designed to carry long distances across hills and valleys. To express his or her emotions the singer often adds turns and vocal embellishments to the melody. Amazingly the guzheng is able to reproduce all these qualities and was eloquently performed by the ensemble.
The first half rounded out with “Joyous Days” a guzheng adaptation of a pipa (Chinese lute) composition. “Joyous Days” describes a festive scene where people celebrate the holidays by gathering in a parade playing drums and gongs. The guzheng arrangement makes use of its two hand grabbing technique to capture the clear and crisp rhythm and celebratory atmosphere.
After intermission, the full ensemble with Winnie Wong took the stage 12 guzhengs strong for Mrs. Wong’s arrangement of the world famous “Butterfly Lovers Concerto”.
“Butterfly Lovers Concerto” was originally written for Western style orchestra with a violin as the lead instrument. Hence, arranging it for guzheng ensemble was a formidable task successfully rendered by Winnie Wong.
The guzheng is normally an instrument that is tuned to a five note pentatonic scale, for this concerto however it had to accommodate a seven note tuning and the performers had to be instructed on where to move the instruments bridges on the fly to prepare for key modulations within the piece.
An audience favorite, Butterfly Lovers tells the tale of two lovers who were forbidden to marry in life but in death were reborn as butterflies that were free to love and free to fly away. The ensemble played the orchestral parts skillfully, delighting the audience. One could easily imagine the flutter of colorful butterfly wings flying delicately from flower to flower.
The floral theme that had been touched on throughout the evening continued with “Three Variations of the Plum Blossom.” The Plum Blossom in Chinese literary tradition symbolizes the qualities of integrity and perseverance in a noble person, because the plum blossom is not affected by cold weather and its striking beauty stands out in the bareness of wintertime.
“Fragrant Jasmine” is perhaps one of the most ubiquitous pieces in all Chinese music. It is based on folk tune called “Jasmine Flowers” that is well known south of the Yangtze river basin. Winnie Wong did a unique arrangement of it for this concert that gave new life and meaning to the tune. The jasmine flower is a symbol of pure and lasting love, and the composer combined contemporary fast picking technique with more traditional playing technique associated with guzheng performance creating a simple, graceful melody to capture the delicate beauty of jasmine flowers.
The evening’s arrangement started out with a guzheng trio and then morphed into solo guzheng showcasing the artistry of Mrs. Wong. Fragrant plumes of sound blossomed from the guzheng surrounded by quivering tremolos, a sonic garden of pure elegance and graceful beauty.
The program concluded with “Eternal Sorrow of Lin’ An” a dramatic tale about a celebrated general during the Tsaing dynasty. The general who was a great hero leading an ever victorious campaign against invaders who occupied the northern most part of the country at the time. On the verge of a critical victory he was betrayed by traitors who feared their own loss of power if the general was ultimately successful.
“Eternal Sorrow of Lin’ An” portrays the emotions of the general up to the moment of his execution: his distress, anxiety, helplessness, sense of injustice, and unyielding love for his country. The performers were Winnie Wong on guzheng who was accompanied by renowned pianist Daniel Lockert. Winnie Wong was very effective in bringing about the passion and ethos of the tune bringing forth the generals emotions through the guzheng with deep feeling.
The CSME concert was a true musical milestone. It had so much going for it: elegant beauty, unparalled musicianship, endless variety, shimmering tone colors, finely crafted compositions and a dynamic stage presence. It is hoped that China’s Spirit Music Ensemble will continue to share its exceptional artistry with audiences well into the extended future.
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