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China National Orchestra

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CHINA NATIONAL ORCHESTRA

The China National Orchestra, one of only a few traditional-music groups that the country's cultural ministry permits to travel abroad, last visited Chicago in 1984. The orchestra was a novelty then, but in the years since, concerts by touring expatriates and the efforts of the locally based Chinese Music Society of North America have ensured that its repertoire won't seem quite so exotic this time--Chinese instruments like the erhu and suona may soon be as familiar to Western ears as the tabla and sitar. Based in Beijing, the CNO is unquestionably one of the most eloquent and entertaining interpreters of Chinese classical music, comprising over 80 musicians divided among bowed strings, plucked strings, reeds, and percussion. Despite some turnover due to death, retirement, or emigration, most of the senior members who toured with the orchestra in '84 are still around--and though modern notation means the centuries-old Chinese canon no longer has to be passed directly from one player to another, these old hands are an indispensable resource for the generation that emerged from China's conservatories in the 90s. The orchestra's Chicago program includes some of the Chinese classical tradition's "greatest hits"--mostly ancient folk tunes or court music, arranged for orchestra in the 20th century. The concerto nicknamed The Butterfly Lovers was adapted from a well-known popular opera, in which two sweethearts kept apart by their families reunite as butterflies after their deaths; the solo instrument in the CNO's version is the gaohu, a high-pitched fiddle played here by young virtuoso Yu Hongmei. Another concerto, Deep Is the Night, casts a pair of soloists--Li Fuhau and Liu Xiang, both on the two-string fiddle called the erhu--as childhood friends who grow into generals on the opposite sides of a war. Jasmine Flower cycles its musical theme, which Puccini appropriated for Turandot, through 22 variations, giving the ensemble a chance to show off its hundred or so instruments--including several sheng, or mouth organs, and a panoply of bell chimes, some of which have never been seen outside China. Rounding out the program are orchestral arrangements of a dance tune of the southeastern Yao tribe, a Mongolian herdsmen's song, and a Korean folk melody. The CNO also promises encores, including a rendition of "America the Beautiful." Thursday, August 31, 7:30 PM, Orchestra Hall, Symphony Center, 220 S. Michigan; 312-294-3000 or 630-910-1551. TED SHEN

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