The erhu isn’t missing any strings. All it needs is two to produce the musical scale in a range of octaves. Some people call it the Chinese violin.
The Houston Traditional Chinese Music Group calls it tradition.
The group will be playing the erhu, as well as other traditional Chinese instruments when it performs in Baton Rouge on Saturday, June 18. The performance will mark the group’s first outside of the Houston area.
“And this is exciting for us,” Francine Di said. “We might not be able to bring our entire group, but we’ll have a large ensemble that’s representative of our performers.”
Di is a pianist, one of some 50 volunteers who make up the group’s membership. Some members are Chinese immigrants, others are American students who have learned to play traditional Chinese instruments and have joined the orchestra for an opportunity to perform.
The youngest member is age 10; the oldest is in his 70s.
“And most members have day jobs,” Di said. “So this is something extra that we all do.”
Day jobs can be described in a variety of ways. Members are students, college professors, medical doctors, stay-at-home parents and retirees.
“We have all kinds of professions,” Di said.
As for Di, she’s a classically trained pianist who works in Rice University’s Office of Development during the week and teaches private piano lessons on weekends.
Di’s mother urged her to join the traditional music group.
“She plays percussion,” Di said. “And my brother plays the zither.”
The zither is part of the same stringed instrument group as the dulcimer, where strings don’t extend past the sound box. The Chinese zither is called the guzheng.
But again, Di didn’t become involved in the group through her brother. The group’s founders and directors asked her mother to ask Di.
These are the same founders who decided to come together in 2008 in an effort to preserve traditional Chinese music.
So much has been lost or forgotten in a world of continuously evolving technology. Wan Yang, Lei Xin and Jiahua Yang didn’t want to see the music they loved fade into obscurity.
Wan Yang plays the accordion and bamboo flute. Jiahua Yang is a percussionist and Lei Xin plays the erhu.
Yes, the erhu, the Chinese violin that requires only two strings. It’s the same instrument played by the fourth director and founder, Xin Zhang.
Zhang is mentioned last, because he was living in China when the three founders in Houston decided to put the group together.
“He plays the erhu, and he has written articles about it for music journals,” Di said. “They invited him to come to Houston to be the artistic director for the group. So, we have four directors, and the rest is our hodgepodge of people.”
But any member of a community band or orchestra will testify that the hodgepodge is the very heartbeat of the organization. People join the group and attend weekly rehearsals simply because of their love for the music.
“I think I can say that for our members,” Di said. “It’s the reason we come together. We have one man who is living with a host family. He plays the double bass, and he doesn’t have a car of his own. So, his host family drives many miles each week to bring him to rehearsal. It means that much to him.”
Add to that the fact that this orchestra’s sound is much different than others throughout the United States, and it’s clear that this truly is a labor of love for its members.
“It’s been different for me,” Di said. “As I said, I’m a classically trained pianist, and this music is much different than what I usually play.”
It also requires different performance skills. Remember, these aren’t conventional instruments, so they’re played in different ways.
The erhu’s bow is placed between the two strings instead of on top, as would be the case for a violin. The bow is pushed and pulled through the two strings to create sound, and placement of the fingers on top of the strings determines pitch.
“It’s tuned much like a violin,” Di said. “And it comes in different sizes like you would see in the violin and viola.”
Then there’s the bamboo flute, which is held horizontally and to the side like a regular flute.
“But there are other flutes^=flutes with reeds and one with a bell that produces a louder sound,” Di said.
The percussion section will include gongs, wood blocks and a variety of drums.
“We’ll be playing a mixed program of traditional Chinese music and western music,” Di said. “We have arrangements of western music that we can play on our instruments, so it will be western music with a different sound. So, we will be offering a variety of music in our concert.”
The concert is being presented by the Baton Rouge Chinese Culture Club and the LSU School of Music.
The Houston Traditional Chinese Music Group is among many Chinese artists and musicians brought to Baton Rouge by the Chinese Culture Club in the last 25 years.
The club invited the Hong Kong Youth and Juvenile Classical Chinese Orchestra to Baton Rouge in February 2010, hosted Hong Kong artist Delia Chien in a one-person show at the Louisiana State Archives’ gallery in July 2009 and presented the Youth Peking Opera Troupe from Taipei, Taiwan, in 2007.
The club regularly collaborates with the LSU School of Art and School of Music.
“Again, we’re very excited about having a chance to perform,” Di said. “And we’re hoping that we’ll get a chance to do some sightseeing before the concert. And we’re really looking forward to eating some Louisiana food.”
“We have crawfish in Houston, but I know it’s prepared differently in different dishes in Louisiana,” she said.
Just as the erhu is played differently than the violin.
But crawfish are still crawfish. And though different, the erhu is still part of the stringed instrument family. And when played as dictated by tradition, its sound, no doubt, will be beautiful.