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Music from China

Chinese silk and bamboo ensemble New York, New York
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Photo Credit: photo courtesy of artist
photo courtesy of artist

From their home on the edge of New York City’s dynamic Chinatown, the vibrant arts organization Music from China has just celebrated 35 years as a premiere U.S. institution “on the crossroads of East and West, the traditional and contemporary.” The organization is best known for its eponymous ensemble that delightfully performs the string and wind music of China, known in Chinese tradition as silk and bamboo music, a reference to the materials from which the instruments are made. With their thrilling presentations, the members of Music from China are redefining tradition with vision and innovation.

Traditional music in present-day China includes many diverse regional styles, from raucous community bands to the precisely stylized Chinese opera. Building on a history of reverence for the virtuosic performer, the most promising music students typically continue to the conservatory level; here they learn a repertoire that encompasses much of China’s musical variety. The members of Music from China thus perform, with the highest level of skill and nuance, folk and classical music from across China.

Growing up in an immigrant family in New York’s Chinatown, Music from China organizer Susan Cheng loved the sounds of traditional music, but had little access to formal training. As a young adult, she joined an amateur ensemble, first studying zither under a master Cantonese opera musician. In 1984 Ms. Cheng founded Music from China, which, in addition to its performing ensemble, provides musical education through artist residencies in schools and colleges, and a prestigious Youth Orchestra, creating a conduit for rigorous education in Chinese musical traditions for a new generation.

At the National Folk Festival, Music from China will feature three outstanding soloists. Wang Guowei trained at Shanghai Conservatory, and joined the Shanghai Traditional Orchestra at age 17, eventually becoming concertmaster. An award-winning composer, he has been Music from China’s Artistic Director since 1996. Mr. Wang plays the erhu, a traditional two-stringed spike fiddle played with a bow between the strings. Ann Yao began her musical studies with her grandfather, a noted folk musician, before continuing at the Shanghai Conservatory; her primary instrument is the zheng, a five-foot long, 21-stringed, horizontal, plucked zither that is among China’s oldest-known instruments. Ms. Yao has performed with Music from China since shortly after moving to the U.S. in 1985. She currently lives in Florida, where she received the Florida Folk Heritage Award in 2009. Sun Li plays the pear-shaped pipa, a four-stringed, plucked lute. She is a graduate of the Shenyang Music Conservatory and was a member of the Central Song and Dance Ensemble in Beijing; now living in New York, Ms. Sun has been a member of Music from China since 2002. These three solo artists are accompanied by Ms. Cheng on daruan (a four-stringed bass lute), and Yu Chen on dizi, a bamboo flute. Ms. Yu, who studied at the Central Conservatory in Beijing, recently came to the U.S. to study arts education at New York University. Together, Music from China stands out, as the Kansas City Star recently noted, as “musicians of extraordinary accomplishment and sensitivity performing sophisticated, involving music.”

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