They are called the Canada Tour Troupe, and they come from the Central Conservatory of Music in Beijing: 中央音乐学院. Last Tuesday evening, I bought a ticket to watch and hear their Chinese Music Soirée in the Theatre at the National Arts Centre; it was Confucius' birthday, in the week of the PRC's National Day and Moon Festival. The Chinese Ambassador was present and among the large audience, hearing the voices and seeing the faces, I almost felt as if I were back in Beijing.
First came four young ladies with long black hair, wearing turquoise, orange, pink and mauve, a yangqin quartet. These are Ming Dynasty instruments, Chinese dulcimers, we were told, laid on wooden boxes, varnished red and inlaid with golden dragons. The yangqin is played with two sticks, like a xylophone. The music was jazzy and syncopated. Then followed a sequence of four solos, for piano, for the pipa (a sort of wooden lute, a more ancient instrument), for the yangqin again (the pianist accompanying) and for a young baritone. His chosen aria, "The Mighty River Flows Eastward," was sung in Chinese, but sounded awfully like Russian romantic opera. I think he'd been listening to Dmitri Hvorostovsky. The instrumentalists were virtuoso performers who had won prestigious awards.
Chosen members of the audience were invited on stage to try playing the pipa and the yangqin, obviously too difficult, but they received prizes of miniature instruments to take home. Then four staff members of the Beijing conservatory played a piece called "Spring of Mount Tianshan", the melody line being held by the flute player, on a bamboo flute held vertically like a recorder. The others played the piano, pipa and yangqin, again.
After the intermission came what I think was the most beautiful item on the program, a "Bows and Strings Dance" for an erhu quartet. It doesn't seem far removed from modern, western string quartet music, although interestingly there is no apparent hierarchy among the players, since each instrument has the same pitch range. The bows are held like double bass bows, fitting inside the instrument's two strings. This quartet was beautiful to watch as well, the four girls who played wearing long, Grecian style, white robes. They held their instruments upright on their knees, and sitting on the front row I appreciated the graceful way they swayed to the music, and the changing expressions on their young faces.
Next came a "Guitar Duo" named Pumping Nylon (!)––two young men from the conservatory playing a Brazilian dance by Jorge Morel, the only piece on the program not by a Chinese composer. I was interested to see how restrained the guitarists were; although their playing was technically perfect, they seemed reluctant to let themselves go! I remembered the students I saw dancing at the Jiao Tong university in May. The flute player who returned to the stage after this, an older man, one of the Profs at the conservatory, was of course far more self-confident. This time he used a traverse flute. Apparently there is quite a range of bamboo flutes in China.
I think the finale made the biggest impression. A line of the Chinese musicians sat with their instruments at the front of the stage, ready to play, and then the curtain behind them lifted and there sat a large ensemble of Canadian musicians and music students from Carleton University, ready to play with them! Surprised applause! The piece specially composed for this ensemble was called "Beside a Clear Spring––Canadian Songs Caprice". 20 well known Canadian songs had been sent to the Chinese composer and he had chosen elements from three of these to blend with a traditional Chinese lullaby, depicting "a dialogue of singers of the two cultures across the time and distance," as the program notes quaintly put it. I was amused to discover that the three Canadian tunes he had chosen to experiment with were a French folksong (A la claire fontaine), Canada's national anthem and Leonard Cohen's Hallelujah. The conductor of this little orchestra was Canada's Barbara Clark.