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Benefit concert for China tour

STANFORD -- Some musicians hear a dialogue between two cultures in the Double Concerto for Violin and Erhu. Stanford Symphony Orchestra director J. Karla Lemon detects a far more romantic theme.

"There's a tradition in China where lovers stand on two neighboring mountains and sing to each other," says Lemon. "To me, the two instruments represent those two lovers. The Western violin states the theme, and then the haunting, provocative sound of the Chinese erhu states it. The two instruments, juxtaposed, are very beautiful."

On April 8 Lemon will conduct the Double Concerto in a benefit performance by the orchestra and San Francisco's Dun Huang Music Ensemble at 8 p.m. in Dinkelspiel Auditorium to raise funds for the orchestra's tour of mainland China and Hong Kong this summer.

The Dun Huang ensemble plays traditional Chinese music spanning several millennia. Lemon first heard the musicians perform at Herbst Theater last June and was eager to bring them to campus. "They were incredible, and I loved the idea of presenting the two cultures simultaneously."

Gang Situ, composer of the Double Concerto and a prominent Bay Area musician whose work has been performed in China, Europe and the United States, says the growing interest in Chinese music among American audiences has something to do with the novelty of the instruments themselves. "People look at the erhu, which has only two strings and just a little space between the strings, and they're very interested to see how a soloist could play it," he says, laughing.

"But even more important, there are a lot of young Chinese composers who are graduating from U.S. universities these days and going into music professionally. And at the same time more and more orchestras and symphonies are calling on me -- are calling on all of us -- because they seem to really want to try some new programming."

The April 8 performance will feature three works: Max Bruch's Concerto for Violin in G Minor, with student soloist Bruce Yu; Gang Situ's Double Concerto for Violin and Erhu, with student soloist Pamina Kim and the ensemble's Wang Hong; and Zhou Long's Peking Drum for pipa and orchestra, with ensemble pipa virtuoso Min Xiao-Fen. For the second half of the program the entire Dun Huang ensemble will take center stage.

The Double Concerto, which premiered last June, has what Lemon calls a "Western feel" and an easily recognizable structure. It opens with a slow, lyrical movement and then progresses to a lively second movement built around themes taken from the folk melodies of China's southern provinces.

"It has to be played very freely, with a sense of improvisation, and I had no doubt that Pamina Kim could learn the music. She's a very dedicated, responsible kind of student, and she also plays from the heart. And sure enough -- she learned it within two weeks and then started calling me to set up rehearsals."

Kim, a biology major who was concertmaster of the orchestra last fall, had never played a Chinese composition before. "But we began to rehearse with the composer, and he was really helpful in pointing out little stylistic changes," she says.

"It's just a really fun piece that sounds both Chinese and contemporary. There's this neat back-and-forth dialogue when the erhu player and I are rehearsing together. Generally, the Western violin tends to dominate because it's louder and brighter, but you can hear themes that give you a definite taste of Chinese folk songs."

Friends have asked her to describe the sound of the erhu, but Kim says it's difficult to put into words. "You'd recognize it as a stringed instrument, and I suppose you'd say it has a nasal quality -- but I don't mean that in any negative sense."

The Peking Drum piece composed by Zhou Long features another Chinese instrument -- the pipa, which looks like an upright lute. "It has so many possibilities for either strumming or plucking, and lends itself to a very expressive style of playing, with bending of notes and pitches," Lemon says.

In fact, some Stanford Symphony Orchestra members have become so intrigued with the sounds emanating from their joint rehearsals that they have begun to study Chinese instruments and notation systems. Matt Springer, a post-doc in molecular pharmacology and 10-year veteran of the violin section, has been playing the erhu for about a year now.

"I've had to learn how to play on the wrong side of the bow, and Chinese friends have had to teach me how to read a different number system and how to interpret the music emotionally," says Springer. "One friend will say, 'slide into this note -- but slowly.' It's sort of like someone who knows a lot of Bach trying to pick up Led Zeppelin."

Upcoming China tour

When orchestra members were polled two years ago, mainland China and Hong Kong were their overwhelming favorites for the symphony's third international tour. They are scheduled to perform in Beijing, Shanghai, Guangzhou and Hong Kong, and will present works by American and European composers who have become increasingly popular in China since the 1950s. The orchestra also will perform the Chinese premiere of Antiphony by the Chinese composer Chen Yi, who will accompany the group on tour.

Chen Yi, who is spending three years in the Bay Area on a Meet the Composers grant sponsored by the Women's Philharmonic, Chanticleer and Aptos Middle School, is an accomplished composer whose works Lemon used to play when she was music director and conductor of the Rohnert Park Symphony and guest conductor of the Women's Philharmonic. Chen is married to Zhou Long, composer of Peking Drum.

"I've had a dream of going to China for the last 10 years, but never expected to be able to go in this capacity," says Lemon. "And when I was asked to pick up Chen Yi at the airport the day she arrived in San Francisco, I still didn't know we'd be making the tour.

"But then the orchestra made its decision, and there's just been a lot of serendipity ever since then. Chen Yi began taking me to lots of Chinese concerts in the area, and I've begun to discover what a vital and vibrant community of Chinese composers there is in the Bay Area."


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