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Wei Yang and Betty Xiang




This husband-and-wife duo--Wei Yang plays a four-stringed lute called the pipa, Betty Xiang the two-stringed, violinlike erhu--moved to Chicago four years ago, looking for a less regimented professional life than they'd known in their native Shanghai. Though both had been well-regarded virtuosos in China, touring as soloists with the National Shanghai Orchestra, they played as many as 500 concerts a year, often repeating the same dozen traditional songs. Since arriving here, they've successfully widened their repertoires, playing with pan-ethnic fusion bands like the All-American Immigrant Orchestra, performing at the first Chicago World Music Festival--where Yang pulled off a version of "The Star-Spangled Banner" worthy of Hendrix--and contributing to a genre-bending Bach program at Ravinia. Both took up music in the early 70s, at the peak of the Cultural Revolution. Xiang learned the erhu from her father, a renowned virtuoso and teacher; the instrument is played with its bow hair threaded between the steel strings and has a throaty, melancholy tone, amplified by a small box covered in snakeskin. The pear-shaped pipa usually has 20 to 30 frets and steel or silk strings, played fingerstyle; traditional techniques include string bends, rapid tremolos, the use of harmonics, and sustained tones created by plucking with all four fingers in smooth succession. Yang can shift fluidly from a slow melody to rippling cascades and back, and his rapt concentration makes him a riveting presence onstage. In conjunction with the Art Institute's exhibit "Taoism and the Arts of China," the couple is offering a series of recitals in December, including two this weekend. They'll perform in the exhibit's replica of a Taoist scholar's study, and the seven short pieces they'll play, which date back to the 17th century, are all believed to be Taoist in origin. Some, culled from an anthology of Chinese folk tunes and court music, either accompanied Taoist rituals or bear titles--like "Listening to the Whisper of the Pines"--that suggest Taoist cosmology, with its emphasis on the transience of life, the permanence of nature, and the harmonious balance of creation and destruction. Others were arranged in the early 20th century by Ah Bing, a blind Taoist priest who became an itinerant master musician. As part of the program Mary Sue Glosser, the Art Institute's education coordinator, will discuss Taoist music and art and show slides of works in the exhibit. Saturday and Sunday, December 2 and 3, 1:30 PM, Regenstein Hall, Art Institute of Chicago, 111 S. Michigan; 312-443-3600. The duo also performs next Friday, December 8, at noon at McGuire Hall, Saint Xavier University, 3700 W. 103rd; 773-298-3421.


Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Cynthia Howe.

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