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East Tweaks West

Two Chinese musicians mess with Bach.

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By Ted Shen

On a bright April day in 1996 Betty Xiang, Wei Yang, and their four-year-old son boarded a plane in their native Shanghai. Two rising stars of Chinese traditional music, Xiang and Yang were determined to start a new life in a country whose "gold mountain" mystique has enthralled generations of immigrants. "We had $10,000 on us," recalls Yang. "We thought we could live on that for ten months until we found the right situation. If not, we go back home."

Flash-forward: It's a May 2000 afternoon, and the couple have brought their instruments to the Hyde Park home of Laura Fenster, a pianist who teaches at the Sherwood Conservatory. They're living in Elk Grove Village, and Fenster is helping them rehearse for their June 7 gig at Ravinia Festival, part of "Bachanalia," celebrating the 250th anniversary of the baroque master's death. It's a big break for the Chinese musicians.

Unabashedly gimmicky, the all-Bach affair will assemble on the Martin Theatre stage; harmonica player Howard Levy, banjo strummer Michael Miles, Buenos Aires bandoneonista Joaquin Amenabar, tap dancer Lane Alexander, the Chicago Chamber Musicians Brass Quintet, Willie Pickens's jazz trio, harpsichordist Stephen Alltop, and the a cappella Oriana Singers. Xiang plays the erhu, and Yang the pipa--both traditional Chinese stringed instruments--and like the others they'll be given about 15 minutes to demonstrate their appreciation of Bach.

Neither Xiang nor Yang had heard Bach's music before 1979, when the Cultural Revolution ended. But once Western music returned to Shanghai they began exploring it. When Yang got into the Shanghai Conservatory of Music in the late 80s he was required to minor in the piano, which meant digging into the vast European repertoire. "Mozart, Chopin, Tchaikovsky, and even pieces by contemporary Chinese composers. And, of course, Bach."

For the Ravinia program Xiang and Yang chose the Two-Part Invention in F Major, BWV 779, arranging it for their instruments. They also picked a minuet from the Notebook of Anna Magdalena Bach. "We already knew these in our heads, so it was a matter of having the pipa and erhu cover all the notes," Xiang explains. But a fugue from The Well-Tempered Clavier, suggested by Fenster, was new to them. "Honestly, it was like speaking English for the first time," says Yang.

It was about ten years ago that Yang started thinking about leaving China. Xiang and Yang had been playing with the National Shanghai Orchestra since the early 80s and were acknowledged virtuosi. At the time he was teaching a group of Taiwanese students in Shanghai. "They said it would be good for us to move to Singapore or Hong Kong. But we had been to those places and thought they were too small, too limited. America was on our mind but we didn't know how." In 1995 one of the Taiwanese advised, "You should just apply for an American green card. Why not?" Yang did, and to his surprise he got one. "The lawyer told us, you and your wife are unique musicians and we think you can be beneficial to our country."

Betty Xiang's father was a renowned erhu soloist, and her grandfather also played the instrument in the canal city of Suzhou, not far from Shanghai. Near the end of World War II her father and grandfather formed the Peace Orchestra, divided into instrumental sections in the European style. "The imperial courts had their spectacular ensembles," Yang explains, "but usually along the line of 300 musicians playing the same instrument." The Shanghai National Orchestra, which flourished in the 20s, was more Western. It fell apart during the Japanese occupation of the city but was revived by the Communist regime in 1954, partly to fuel national pride. "My dad was a founding member," says Xiang. "And there was enough job security for him to start a family."

Xiang's childhood was fairly uneventful--until the Cultural Revolution, when her life changed drastically. She remembers practicing on the violin halfheartedly when very little. Then one day in 1969 her father's orchestra was disbanded, and he was dispatched to work in a factory. It was in the early 70s, Xiang says, that she found her calling. She was curious about the erhu her father had hung on the wall but dared not play for fear of neighbors informing the authorities. She pestered him to teach her. He was reluctant, not only because it might be a passing fancy but also because he didn't think playing the erhu, historically associated with beggars and courtesans, was proper for her. "He put up a roadblock," she recalls. "He said, 'If you play for one month and not be tired of it, then I'll teach you.'"

During these clandestine sessions, Xiang became one of her father's best students. The erhu--a mainstay in Chinese music since the height of the Sung dynasty in the 11th century--is not difficult to learn. But really mastering it, making it sing with emotion, is another matter. Though its sounds are wide-ranging, they're essentially melancholic. According to Xiang, an ancestor of the instrument was introduced to China in the eighth century by prisoners of war from central Asia. "The name, 'two-stringed barbarian instrument,' tells you that it's of foreign origin," she says. "In fact, most instruments whose names are two characters, like the yangqin and pipa, are not native to China." Over the centuries the erhu was refined, and variations of it also became fashionable in Korea and Japan. It was standardized in the early 1900s--one reason that the erhu section in an orchestra could begin to play in harmony.

Xiang owns several erhus as well as one gaohu, a higher-pitched relative, and a lower-pitched zhonghu. All are of recent vintage. "More complicated playing techniques have been developed on the new models," she explains. "So, even though the erhu is similar to the violin, very old erhus are valued only as antiques." Her erhu is typical, made of red wood with the hexagonal resonator covered in boa skin. A horsehair bow is placed between the instrument's two strings when playing. The range is about three octaves. Its tone, she remarks, most closely resembles that of the viola de gamba, a medieval predecessor of the cello.

In the late 70s, many banished musicians returned to their former positions. The Canton orchestra reopened before the Shanghai National Orchestra did, and Xiang auditioned. It was only after she'd won a position at Canton that she would reveal the family connection, and then only when asked. Two years later she was hired by the Shanghai National Orchestra.

Wei Yang came from a worker family that shared its living quarters with 13 other families in a dilapidated government building on one of Shanghai's busiest boulevards. Because of their proletarian background, Yang's parents didn't suffer as much as Xiang's during the Cultural Revolution--Yang remembers carrying placards at protests though he was too young to be a Red Guard.

Early on Yang had total recall of tunes. "None of my family members were musical, so I don't know how I got the gift," he says. At age six he started playing folk and pop melodies on any instruments he could lay his hands on, especially the dulcimerlike yangqin. His parents were encouraging but not pushy--"I was playing for fun," he says--and his efforts were reinforced at school. When Yang was 13, he discovered a pipa teacher who'd been with the Shanghai Opera living across the street. "So I said to my parents, 'Why don't we invite him over for dinner so I can learn the pipa?'" After a year or so, the teacher said he'd taught him all he knew.

Yang moved on to his next mentor, someone his mother had heard about through a coworker. "My parents put their heart into me," he says. "When the teacher came to our room for a lesson, my father wrote down everything he said, and my mother cooked and fanned us. They realized I was eager to learn."

When Yang auditioned for the Shanghai National Orchestra at age 18, he brought many instruments with him, including the pipa and yangqin. "I was a very long shot," he says, alluding to his lack of credentials, "so I didn't feel any pressure or the need to show off." But an appearance on TV several days earlier might have helped him. Yang had taken part in a variety revue highlighting the city's finest young performers, an important event mounted by the Shanghai Cultural Bureau and televised in the streets to ensure a large audience. "It was my first performance in public, and I didn't have proper shoes," says Yang--he wore torn sneakers. "It's all a blur now, but I do remember doing a duet. And Li-kuo Chang--now a violist with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra--was featured in one segment." Yang says Shanghai's mayor enjoyed the show so much he wanted all the participants to "reach the next level." So Yang got a spot in the orchestra through "the back door," he says half-jokingly, "which is a very Chinese way."

Like the erhu, the guitarlike pipa became a popular instrument in China almost a thousand years ago, especially among the nobility. Most certainly a relative of the lute and oud used by itinerant musicians along the Silk Road, it too has undergone minor alterations over the centuries, and the techniques for playing it have grown increasingly complex. Though he's been a soloist for more than two decades, Yang is still astounded by the number of pitches the pipa can produce and by the stamina needed for its cascades of tremolos. A standard pipa has a soundboard of wutong wood (indigenous to northern China, along the Great Wall) attached to a pear-shaped shell of varnished teak. Its four steel strings over 24 frets allow a range of three-and-a-half octaves. "But I can do a lot with those," says Yang, illustrating with a furious series of plucks.

The pipa's status in present-day China is comparable to that of the piano in the West. National competitions are broadcast, usually on radio. In 1980 Yang won third prize in one of those contests. "I was only 20," he says, "so I didn't care if I placed high. I just wanted to play." Five years later he won the top prize in a competition hosted by Shanghai. "It was more interesting because we had to play both traditional and Western music," he says. And in the spring of 1989 he won the most prestigious competition, held in Beijing--though his triumph was overshadowed by the massacre at Tiananmen Square. As part of the prize, he got offers to record. He and Xiang have made at least 15 CDs since, all in Chinese-speaking countries, and young composers began clamoring to write for them, arranging old melodies in a Western style or creating new modernist pieces.

The economics of China's music scene changed in the 80s and 90s as market capitalism gained acceptance. Pop music from Hong Kong and Taiwan was winning over the young, while governmental subsidies to orchestras were curtailed. The Yangs, who were married in 1988, played 500 concerts a year on tour with the Shanghai National Orchestra, often repeating the same dozen standards. "It was getting very boring for us. We felt stifled," says Yang. Some of the best composers and instrumentalists of their generation were leaving China, encouraged in part by the success of composers like Bright Sheng and Tan Dun in the West.

The Yangs thought about emigrating to Belgium or France, which they'd visited on tour and liked. But they were worried about those countries' strict immigration policies. And Xiang had heard daunting stories of colleagues who'd settled in the Chinatowns of New York and San Francisco. "They worked in sweatshops so they could take out their instruments at night and play as if they were back in Shanghai," she says. "It was depressing." She was constantly told by friends who'd left, "You play Chinese music--why do you want to come here? What can you possibly do?" Still, the United States was the logical choice, says Yang, because his sister was living in Texas, going to graduate school in Arlington.

The Yangs and their son Eric landed there four years ago knowing only a handful of rudimentary phrases in English. "We spoke Mandarin and Shanghaiese most of the time, and our friends didn't really speak English either," says Yang. One month into their stay, a violinist friend cajoled him into playing in an Asian Heritage Month competition. "The pay was $50--even less than what we'd get in China," says Yang, but he agreed to take part after a tuxedo was rented for him. To his surprise, he won first prize and an ovation. "My friend said that never happened to him." The experience gave him hope that people in America might enjoy music performed on Chinese instruments.

Then, at the suggestion of another friend, the duo visited Chicago to play at a convention at the University of Illinois organized by a Taiwanese community group. One month later they packed their bags and instruments and, with Eric in tow, moved to an apartment in Streamwood, a western suburb. "We felt we'd have a far better chance in an urban area with a large Asian population," Yang says. "And we figured that New York or the west coast wouldn't be right for us," adds Xiang. "We were beginning to like open space."

Traditional-music connoisseurs in the Chinese communities here embraced Yang and Xiang right away, perhaps thinking that they could help younger generations appreciate their homeland's classical arts. The Yangs performed whenever they were asked at first, usually at banquets or Asian celebrations. But as time went on they gave more solo concerts. Meng-kong Tham, a DePaul University professor of world music, first heard them at the Cultural Center. "Growing up in Penang, Malaysia," he says, "I associated the erhu with beggars and teahouse entertainment. But Betty's playing just knocked me over. She can handle it like Paganini!" Taking the Yangs under his wing, he hired them in April 1998 to solo with the Youth Symphony of DuPage, the training orchestra where he's been music director and conductor for over two decades; they played a double concerto a prominent Shanghai composer had written for them in the early 90s. And last March Xiang played the "Butterfly" Concerto with the orchestra, a dazzling pastiche of erhu solos and Western ensemble playing based on a beloved Chinese folk melody. "Each time I had students telling me that it was the most stupendous experience in their young lives," Tham says.

Tham has opened doors in other ways, inviting the Yangs to give workshops and referring students to them. So has Barbara Tiao, a piano coach at the Sherwood Conservatory and a founder of the Chinese Fine Arts Society: she arranged a private recital for the Hyde Park Music Society. "These are tough music teachers used to judging performances," she says. "Betty and Wei got the highest marks." Laura Fenster was in that audience and struck up the friendship that's evolved into a professional partnership.

"To be frank, we didn't expect to make so many friends in such a short time," says Yang, who's more gregarious than his wife despite his halting English. "I do most of the talking with them, but Betty is the one who makes the decisions."

Michael Orlove, music coordinator for the Chicago Cultural Center and one of the curators for the World Music Festival last September, first heard them play in the winter of 1998-'99. The Yangs had joined the Chicago Immigrant Orchestra, scheduled to appear in the festival, and Orlove dropped in on the first rehearsal. "I'll never forget it," he says. "Wei suddenly started playing 'Dixie' on the pipa--it was like Jimi Hendrix doing the national anthem on the guitar." Orlove immediately thought of the Yangs to perform "The Star-Spangled Banner" at the festival's opening ceremony at the Field Museum. They agreed, mastering the anthem the day before and putting many of their feelings about this country into the performance. Yang remarks that "in China the bureaucracy would make sure that this sort of improvising doesn't happen."

Mervon Mehta, who programs Ravinia's jazz and "Musica Viva" series, heard the Yangs at the opening ceremony and then later as part of the Chicago Immigrant Orchestra. "I just loved the sound they made. And all that virtuosity," he says. "I realize that Chinese music might be an acquired taste, but they transcended the borders." Last November the Yangs got a call from Mehta. "He said we would be the only performers of non-Western music in the concert," Yang recalls, "and we would play Bach. That's exactly what we've been trying to do since coming here--to play Mozart, Beethoven, in addition to Chinese traditional music. And for different audiences, not just Chinese and Taiwanese."

Tiao has commissioned a concerto apiece from well-known composers for Xiang's erhu and Yang's pipa. Both will be played in October at the Chicago Cultural Center. Yang says he'd like local composers "to think of our instruments as new possibilities." Mehta believes that the audience for pipa and erhu will expand. "People are more open-minded, and the world is a smaller place," he says. "Years ago Bulgarian music was regarded as weird. Now people can't get enough of those Bulgarian women singers."

Xiang and Yang say they're making a comfortable living, and their son speaks accent-free English (and some Mandarin, but only when necessary). "Our home is here in Chicago," Yang says. "We like the freedom and space. This is where we can carry on the tradition."

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

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