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Posted on Sat, Feb 4, 2012 : 11:07 a.m.

Shanghai Chinese Orchestra musicians reinterpreting traditional sounds at Rackham

By Susan Isaacs Nisbett


The Chamber Ensemble of the Shanghai Chinese Orchestra

Forget violin, viola and cello. Forget flute, clarinet, French horn.

When the Chamber Ensemble of the Shanghai Chinese Orchestra makes its University Musical Society debut Friday evening at Rackham Auditorium, the instruments toted on stage will have different, perhaps unfamiliar names —zheng, dizi, erhu, pipa, guqin, suona - and even shapes. The sounds, familiar or not, are likely to enchant in this program of Chinese traditional music.

The 20 members of the ensemble are drawn from the 90 musicians of the larger Shanghai Chinese Orchestra. Founded in 1952, the Shanghai Chinese Orchestra was China’s first large-scale modern orchestra of traditional instruments, and by now, it has performed in more than 80 cities in China and more than 30 foreign countries.

Wang Fujian is the orchestra’s artistic director and conductor. He is also the composer of several pieces on the program.

The inclusion of Wang’s compositions and others of recent vintage doesn’t invalidate the traditional slant of the concert.


Chamber Ensemble of the Shanghai Chinese Orchestra

  • What: Music for Chinese traditional instruments, both traditional and contemporary.
  • Where: Rackham Auditorium, 915 E. Washington St.
  • When: Friday, Feb. 10, 8 p.m.
  • How much: $18-$38. Tickets availble from the UMS Michigan League Ticket Office, 734-764-2538, and online at
“These new pieces,” Wang noted in an e-mail, “are composed based on the Chinese traditional culture.” (All questions and Wang’s answers were translated by Xiaofen Leung, who has been assisting in the tour organization.)

That doesn’t mean there aren’t contemporary influences, including Western influences.

The composition “Jijiruling,” a newly composed piece by Tang Jianping, for example, portrays the business and stress of modern life. “It has been influenced by Western music in some respects,” Wang said, “such as the composition structure. It is a contemporary work. But it still uses the Chinese traditional concept to create this piece.”

In general, he added, “the orchestra tries to represent several regional Chinese styles—as many as possible. On this tour, the orchestra will show the pieces of the eastern, south-east and northern part of China. Almost all the pieces are composed from Chinese folk music. Some are classical, because they are arranged or adapted from ancient music; some are very traditional and classic Chinese music.”

Asked if it was traditional for hear the instruments in the ensemble in combination or if they were more usually solo instruments, Wang said that most Chinese traditional instruments, save for guqin (a member of the zither family), would have been played in groups.

“But some instruments,” he added, “are played in a leading position in the group, so it can be called a solo instrument to some extent.” In Wang’s “Relic,” from 2009, the guqin and xiao (flute) are featured. In the “Moon’s Reflection on Er-Quan,” a 2006 work by Jua Yanjun adapted by Wang, xiao and yanqin (dulcimer) accompany the erhu, with its beautiful, soulful string sound. And seven women from the ensemble, the “Seven Fairies,” who take their name from an ancient Chinese legend, bring their elegant style to the traditional “Rainbow Skirt and the Feathered Coat.”

The instruments are erhu, dizi (flute), yangqin, guzheng (zither), zhongruan (plucked instrument) and pipa (lute). The group plays for many Chinese state occasions, among them, a Shanghai government dinner for President Obama on his first visit to China.