Pacific Harmony String Quartet reinterprets Chinese folk music on Western instruments
Pacific Harmony String Quartet aims to build musical bridges between east and west. An interview with founder Suli Xue.
Special to The Seattle Times
Pacific Harmony String Quartet
7:30 p.m. Saturday, Benaroya Hall, 200 University St., Seattle; $20-$35 (206-215-4747, 800-982-ARTS or www.ticketmaster.com).
"There is so much beautiful folk music in China," says Suli Xue, founder of Pacific Harmony String Quartet, which performs in Benaroya Hall Saturday. "But I don't play those instruments."
The instrument Xue, a member of the Los Angeles Philharmonic Orchestra and professor at the University of Southern California's Thornton School of Music, has played since his childhood in Harbin, China, is violin. The music he was trained to perform in his native country — Prokofiev, Chopin, Schumann — is exclusively Western.
But while growing up, Xue was surrounded by folk tunes composed on such exotic instruments as the erhu, a two-string, vertical fiddle with a long neck, and the sheng, a handheld, free-reed mouth organ made from a dried gourd and bamboo pipes.
"I learned Western music but have a Chinese cultural background," Xue says. "My goal is to introduce Chinese music to Western audiences."
Xue's yearning to draw upon China's enormous folk repertoire, adapted for classical instruments, inspired him to create a string quartet with other Southern California-based musicians also born and educated in China.
Pacific Harmony String Quartet plays Western classical compositions as well as original arrangements of Chinese songs. The latter, judging by Pacific Harmony's "Melodies of the Far East" CD, released in 2000, become exquisite, between-worlds music in the quartet's hands, alternately pastoral, yearning and exuberant.
Pacific Harmony's performance at Benaroya will include Yan Jun Hua's melancholy "Reflection of the Moon In the Erquan Spring," soon followed by Heng Qian Zhu's sprightly "Happy Saliha," which Xue says was popular during the Cultural Revolution.
Dong Sheng Zang's gorgeous love song "Significant and Sentimental" will follow intermission. The final Chinese selection is close to home for Xue: "Zhong Yuan Caprice," written by his father, Cheng Qian Xue, Suli's first music instructor and an associate concertmaster at the Harbin City Opera.
Suli Xue commissioned an arrangement by Yan Jiang for "Zhong Yuan Caprice," and he says audiences are often surprised to hear it is reminiscent of Copland's "Hoedown."
Xue says the quartet's name reflects its artistic mission.
"There is an ocean that connects us here in California with China," he says. "We seek a harmonious link between East and West."
Xue's compatriots in the ensemble include L.A. Philharmonic violinist Jonathan Wei, who studied at the Central Conservatory of Music in Beijing. Violist Hui Liu, also from the Philharmonic, is a Beijing native, and cellist Pin Fei Tang, who teaches at La Sierra University, graduated from the Music School of the Army Academy of Fine Arts, also in Beijing.
Pacific Harmony's program at Benaroya includes pieces by Mozart, Handel and Dvorak. But there's no question their Eastern selections will be a novel experience for the audience.
"Chinese folk songs are often about having a beautiful life," Xue says. "It would be a pity for us not to learn and perform them."
Tom Keogh: email@example.com
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