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Artistic Flowering

“Artistic Flowering” – Alexander Varty- Georgia Straight, Publish date: May 25, 2006

Partings are always bittersweet, no matter how necessary they might be. Leaving a friend or a lover, exiting from the family home, even moving on in one’s working life—these are all occasions for nostalgia and regret, although perhaps also for hope and anticipation. And so, in their emotional complexity, departures—from the various leave-takings recounted in the Odyssey to the tear-jerking farewells of the latest Hollywood romance—have always been an appropriate subject for the arts.

The biggest departure, of course, is the one that comes when we quit this Earth, bound either for the blank void or the mystical heavens. The mysteries of death helped inspire Parting at Yang Kuan, the latest composition from Taiwanese Canadian composer Hope Lee, which the Orchid Ensemble will premiere at the Norman Rothstein Theatre on Saturday (May 27), as part of the explorASIAN festival. Lee’s score takes its title from an anonymous Ming Dynasty poet’s verse—as does the event itself, thanks to a sad but perhaps serendipitous development.

According to Orchid bandleader Lan Tung, the ensemble’s long-time zheng [Chinese zither] player Mei Han has decided to strike out on her own.

“Mei’s solo career has taken off, and in the past few years it’s gotten more difficult to schedule concerts around everyone’s schedule,” Tung explains, on the line from the East Vancouver home she shares with her partner, Orchid Ensemble percussionist Jonathan Bernard. “She’s become very busy, and last year she was thinking of pursuing a doctoral degree. I don’t know how that’s going, but I do know that she’s working more on her solo projects.

“That’s why I think this concert’s title has some extra significance,” the erhu [Chinese violin] virtuoso continues. “Parting at Yang Kuan is also parting with Mei, and the traditional Three Variations of Plum Blossom piece that we’re performing in an ensemble arrangement was one of Mei’s signature solo pieces. So this concert honours her eight-year contribution to the ensemble, and she will be there too.”

She’ll be there, that is, in the audience. Replacing a performer as skilled as Han—an internationally acclaimed ethnomusicologist as well as an exceptional musician—might seem difficult, but Tung and Bernard have already found a likely candidate, and they’re understandably excited.

“Her name is Gelina Jiang, and she comes from Wuhan, the city where all the gongs come from in China,”

Tung says. “And she actually worked in a museum ensemble there, the Zeng Bells. She had been with that ensemble for 20 years, and she’s a multi-instrumentalist who’s also had training in Beijing opera.”

“We’re very curious to see what will happen next,” Bernard adds. “She’s been so busy working her bum off to learn our repertoire that we haven’t really asked her what she wants to bring to the group. But once this concert’s over, we’re going to invite her to bring her ideas into the group—and on some of our long drives she’s already talked about aspects of the [Chinese] operatic tradition and how they might fit into what we do.”

Of course, the Orchid Ensemble has always welcomed change, and the program for Saturday’s concert reflects that innovative spirit.

“This project is based on exploring the relationship between music and poetry,” Tung says. “This has been done many times in different cultures, and so I’d like to make a different presentation for it.”

With Lee’s piece, this will involve a live demonstration of Chinese calligraphy. “As it’s being written, it’ll be videotaped and projected onto a screen at the same time as the music, so you can see the words appearing,” Tung elaborates. Further layers of complexity will be provided by media artist Kenneth Newby, who’ll create a real-time video collage of calligraphy and performance footage.

A different sort of collaborative effort involves Mark Armanini’s Heartland suite, one of the first works commissioned by the Orchid Ensemble. Earlier this month, the trio performed Armanini’s music at Britannia high school, then asked students to compose poetry based on what they’d heard.

“We discussed what kind of images came to mind when they listened to the music, and then their teacher helped them get their poetry written,” Tung explains. “At the concert, a few students will come and recite their poems in between pieces.”

Also on the bill will be Life, Death, Tears, Dream by composer Ya-wen Vivienne Wang, written for the Orchid Ensemble plus the voices of a local Taiwanese choral group, the Egret Ladies Choir.

“The lyrics were written by a Taiwanese poet,” Tung notes, “but the musical ideas, like the tuning and the rhythmic ideas, come from Javanese gamelan music—especially in the last movement, when the choir is divided into eight or nine different parts, with the counterpoint coming in at a different time. It’ll give the feel of a larger gamelan ensemble—and also the gestures, the motifs on the zheng also sound like gamelan.”

Calligraphy, video, poetry, and the sounds of Indonesia? The Orchid Ensemble might have lost a founding member, but it sounds like this enduring trio will not let Han’s departure trip it up. And with new arrival Jiang’s abilities on various lutes and violins as well as zheng, its sound will surely diversify even further—much like Vancouver’s musical culture itself.