Friday, May 21, 2010

Original soloists return to play "Butterfly Lovers Violin Concerto” and “Yellow River Piano Concerto”

By Nancy T. Lu

The Taipei Chinese Orchestra (TCO) is bringing together in a very special program considered a high point of the Taipei Traditional Arts Festival Yu Li-na, the original violinist of the “Butterfly Lovers Violin Concerto,” and Yin Cheng-zong, the pianist during the world premiere of the “Yellow River Piano Concerto.” Both Chinese musicians rose to fame during the Cultural Revolution in China.

These two compositions well-loved not only by the people in China but also by ethnic Chinese all over the world will be in the repertoire of the TCO under conductor Shao En at the Zhongshan Hall in Taipei at 7:30 p.m. on May 22 and at 2:30 p.m. on May 23.

In recent years, even international music artists of great renown have taken to performing these concertos in their concerts.

Yu was only 18 back in 1959 when she went up the stage of the Lanxin Theater in Shanghai to perform the violin solo part of the music composed by Chen Gang and He Zhan-hao. Her beautiful fiddling of the music which was the embodiment of China in transition turned her into an overnight sensation. A taped rehearsal of the piece became a commercial recording.

“At the end of my performance, I was initially greeted with complete silence from the audience,” recalled the visiting Yu. “I got really very tense and nervous, not knowing how I stood in their eyes. An earlier concert flop by another artist left me rather apprehensive about public acceptance. But then came the applause.”

Yu remembered wearing a white blouse and black skirt on this occasion. Her schoolgirl look included white socks and black flat shoes, too.

Yu prepared lengthily for this performance. The piece written by two students was not easy to interpret, she said.

“The composition was not part of academic music training,” said Yu. “I had to learn erhu and I had to study Chinese opera to get ready to play this new piece.”

Yu refused to comment directly about foreigners’ attempts to play “Butterfly Lovers Violin Concerto.” She had this to say though: “Just like Chinese musicians seeking to perform Bach and Mozart are required to have a grasp of the composers’ cultural backgrounds, foreign musicians need to study traditional Chinese art and culture first before attempting to play the music.”

Yu has not kept track of the exact number of times she has played “Butterfly Lovers Concerto.” As of last year, she had performed it for half a century. At age 70 this year, she announced: “This will be my last performance before the Taiwan audience I have decided to completely bow out of the concert stage end of this year.”

After she retires as concert violinist, she will probably play the music only to demonstrate her point while teaching her music students, she reckoned. Her teaching profession has kept her growing as a musician, according to Yu.

Yin Cheng-zong, for his part, got on a cart, leaving Gulangyu in Xiamen back in 1954 to find his future. He traveled for five days, harboring constant fear of getting bombed because cross-strait relations then were very tense and critical.

Gulangyu, which at one point was site of 14 consulates, acquired the reputation of the cradle of Chinese pianists, because foreigners who moved in then brought pianos. Yin, a native of Gulangyu, claimed to have learned music by singing in church until he was 16. There was no music conservatory to get formal music education.

Yin later had the opportunity to study music in St. Petersburg, Russia. He took lessons not just in piano but also in conducting and music composition.

Western classical music was banned in China during the years of the Cultural Revolution. Yin as a pianist was concerned about the disappearance of the piano in China. On May 23, 1967, he – fresh from his music training abroad – decided to move a small piano with help from friends to Tiananmen Square in Beijing.

Wearing the uniform of a Red Guard then, he played revolutionary songs for three days. His listeners grew from 300 to 2,000. Yin received about 1,000 letters as a result of what he did. His act even caught the eye of Jiang Qing or Madame Mao.

Music in those days served to fire patriotic fervor. Yin would always be remembered for his leading involvement in rearranging Xian Xinghai’s “Yellow River Cantata” originally written as an expression of defiance against Japanese invaders into the “Yellow River Piano Concerto” for a premiere performance in 1969. Right there with him in this collective effort ordered by Madame Mao of creating the four-movement concerto promoting nationalism were Chu Wang-hua, Liu Zhuang, Sheng Li-hong, Shi Shu-cheng and Xu Feixing. The inclusion of “East Is Red” in the concerto – said to push the musical instruments to a climax – caused the concerto’s performance to be regarded as very controversial. It was even banned in Hongkong, for example, in those days.

The “Yellow River Piano Concerto” has a history of at least four decades. Yin first played it in Taiwan in 1991. The music has often been played in 53 countries, he said. He himself has performed it at least 1,000 times. The Chinese people's spirit in the concerto today is different from what it used to be, he remarked.

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