Despite being the middle of Chinese New Year, or "Spring Festival" as it is known in China, this past Wednesday night was a harsh cold one in downtown Minneapolis. That didn't stop a smattering of music lovers to brave the climate to hear and witness the sounds of the Guqin (or "Chinese Zither") and one of its most famous practitioners, Zhao Jiazhen, in a rare solo performance at the Loring Theater.
[jump] Being one of the most famous performers of the ancient instrument, Jiazhen displayed much nuance and mastery, producing a variety of tones, harmonies and melodies on the seven-stringed instrument that finds its roots and traditional songs stretching back some 3,000 years.
Born in Shanghai, Jiazhen is a professor at the Central Conservatory of Music in Beijing, has performed on a handful of soundtracks in Chinese cinema, and has traveled the world several times over having performed at Carnegie Hall and even for Barack Obama at the Great Hall of the People in Beijing.
On her first stop in a series of performances that will have her performing at Carleton College and the O'Shaughnessy Auditorium at Saint Catherine's this weekend, Jiazhen worked through a series of traditional songs that elicit a form of pure expression in Chinese music highlighting the instrument's knack for reflecting the sounds of nature and allowing for quiet meditation.
After her wonderful performance I had a chance to get some impressions from Zhao Jiazhen and what is in store for this weekend's special performance at St. Kate's.
Welcome to Minnesota and Xin Nian Kuai Le!! That was a terrific performance at the Loring Theater.
Have you ever been to our State? What do you think of the cold?
This is the first time I have ever been to Minnesota. It doesn't bother me as I have been to many other much colder places.
At what age did you start learning to play the Guqin?
I started at age 14.
When and where did you get to perform for Barack Obama? Did you get to meet him?
I performed for him last year at People's Hall in Beijing. We took pictures together and he was very nice.
Most people here aren't familiar with the instrument but have probably heard its sound. What can you tell us about the instrument?
The guqin has more than a 3000-year history. It is a seven-string zither with thirteen dots to mark finger placement. There are hundreds of different playing techniques and therefore an enormous amount of different sounds you can manipulate from the instrument. Unlike western music, these different playing techniques have been used throughout the guqin's entire history, and are not just a focus of modern music. In the past, nobility and scholars primarily played the guqin in palaces. Today it is played in concert halls, though a solo guqin concert like the one I performed last night is extremely rare.
These are really old songs and traditional music. What is some of the history of the music you perform?
Most of the pieces I play relay stories, depict scenes in nature, or express emotions of people in the stories. They are mostly ancient pieces dating back to specific dynasties thousands of years old. For example, "Flowing Water", one of the pieces I played last night is attributed to Boya, who lived during the Spring and Autumn Period (770-476 B.C). It tells a touching story that praises the beauty of nature and also symbolizes the sincerity of true friendship. I also played "The Singing of the Raven at Dusk" which was composed by Prince Liu Yiqing of the Song Dynasty (420-479). This music imitates the sound of birds, and uses harmonics to create a peaceful atmosphere. It is therefore considered an interesting and fresh composition in ancient Qin repertoire.
What type of performance can people expect at the O'Shaughnessy theater with Ba Da Chui?
I will be playing three pieces to open the show. Then the outstanding Chinese percussion quartet, Ba Da Chui (Eight Great Hammers), will do a set of folk percussion pieces where the players use virtuosic percussion techniques to tell simple, entertaining stories with titles such as "Squabbling Ducks," "Tiger Crunching His Teeth," "Rolling Walnuts," and "Ox Fighting Tiger." Then all five of us will join with the members of Speaking in Tongues to perform together. The members of Speaking in Tongues were all born in different countries and grew up speaking different native tongues, but have come together to create some very beautiful and energetic music. It's going to be a very exciting and extremely unique concert! I don't think you will ever have a chance to see this kind of show again.
Zhao Jiazhen and Ba Da Chui perform with Speaking in Tongues on Sunday, February 13 at O'Shaughnessy Auditorium. All Ages. 3pm. For tickets contact Speaking in Tongues at 952-210-3628.