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Choir Program on CBC

Orchid Ensemble gets Canadian choristers singing in Asian languages 

Article posted by Li Robbins in World

The opportunity to sing in languages including Taiwanese and Mandarin – while accompanied by a Juno-nominated instrumental ensemble – is one you’d figure wouldn’t come along every day. But Vancouver’s Orchid Ensemble thinks that should change. It’s one of the reasons the group created their choir collaboration project, teaming up their instruments – Lan Tung on the erhu (Chinese violin), Yu-Chen Wang on the zheng (Chinese zither) and Jonathan Bernard on marimba and percussion – with choirs across the country.

Tung and Bernard talked to CBC Music about what inspired the Orchid Ensemble to “go choral,” and how it’s working so far.

Q: The Orchid Ensemble is eclectic, but it’s rooted in traditions from China. What inspired you to team up with western choirs?

A: Back around 2004 we began to sense strong interest from choir directors to explore Asian languages and musical styles. This seemed a natural path for us, as our instruments are naturally balanced and blend well with voices. The histories of the erhu and zheng are intertwined with vocal music and poetry.

Inspired by the idea, we began to create a set of traditional and original works, as well as all of the resources the choirs need to learn the pronunciation, translation, transliteration. Currently we have about 10 pieces incorporating languages such as Taiwanese, Mandarin, English and Hebrew.

Q: What’s the biggest challenge for the singers?

A: The 10 pieces are very diverse. In some cases the language is the biggest challenge, while in other cases musical elements such as dramatic tempo and dynamic changes present a larger challenge. In all the works, traditional or original, the goal is to capture the style and intention.

Q: What advice do you have for non-Chinese singers when it comes to working with Chinese languages?

A: The best way to learn to pronounce Chinese words is to listen to a native speaker. We provide recordings of the text spoken slowly, accompanied by the transliteration, which has every word spelled out with English alphabets. However, there are a few particular vowels that are difficult for non-Chinese speakers. In Chinese romanization, these words start with the spelling of “z,” “zh,” “ch,” and “sh.” To pronounce these sounds, the upper and lower teeth meet with each other, while the lips do not touch. The position of the tongue is behind the teeth. Whenever there is “h,” the tip of the tongue needs to be slightly rolled up.

Q: You’ve got an ongoing collaborative project with choirs, ranging from school choirs to pros. What kind of choir is most fun for you to work with?

A: We have worked with many choirs. How much fun we can have together does not depend on the level of the choirs. It really depends on the kind of atmosphere that exists in each choir. Choirs are like small communities, and the dynamic of each community is different. The more committed they are to explore the repertoire with us, the deeper we can go.

Q: Beyond the challenges of sharing repertoire in an unfamiliar language, how do you go about sharing the cultural background of the music?

A: As with our concert presentations, we introduce the pieces in depth, giving the relevant historical, linguistic, geographical, religious background. All the pieces have a story and the choir members need this background to inspire their best performance.

Q: What’s the most memorable musical moment you’ve had to date, through the Orchid Ensemble/choir project?

A: Our most memorable experiences are often the most recent. We just returned from a U.S. tour where we collaborated with the choirs and orchestra of St. Louis Community College, performing music by Vancouver composers Jin Zhang, Lan Tung, Janet Danielson, Moshe Denburg, Mark Armanini. The students and faculty were so enthusiastic about the whole project and process, and were genuinely affected by the experience. Having this kind of impact on the next generations of musicians, music lovers, educators, scholars is very rewarding for us.

We then went to Maine where we did a community residency and three concerts with the Oratorio Chorale, based in Brunswick, Maine. Also a very memorable experience, performing in theatres, synagogues, schools, churches. We very much enjoy to engage and meet with all “levels” of communities we visit. Also we enjoyed beautiful coastal drives, much fresh seafood, and always the refreshing Atlantic breeze.