“From fingers to hands to hearts – that’s the quest of Orchid Ensemble, a group of diverse virtuosic musicians brought together through their passion for this delicate and sensitive art form – music which weaves a tapestry of magical sounds of East and West. Orchid Ensemble provides an exotic form of music full of precision and beauty.” – Rosemary Phillips, 2003
From fingers to hands to hearts – that’s the quest of Orchid Ensemble, a group of diverse virtuosic musicians brought together through their passion for this delicate and sensitive art form – music which weaves a tapestry of magical sounds of East and West. From the classical traditions of China to rhythms of Persia and contemporary works, Orchid Ensemble – Lan Tung on erhu (a two-stringed fiddle held on the lap), Mei Han on zheng (a 21 string zither) and Jonathan Bernard, marimba and percussion – is evolving and creating it’s own place in Canadian culture.
Just as growing orchids is an exotic form of gardening, Orchid Ensemble provides an exotic form of music full of precision and beauty. And like an orchid opening its petals, the ensemble has come into full blossom as it travels from one end of the continent to the other performing at concert halls, festivals, cultural and educational institutions (from primary grades to post graduates), introducing traditional and contemporary works from various regions in China, and commissioned pieces from composers of various ethnic backgrounds.
A highlight of a recent tour was a performance at the Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts in Washington. “It was really exciting,” explained Lan Tung. “We had quite a crowd, that included people from Mexico and South America, who cheered us after every piece.”
Lan Tung – founder of Orchid Ensemble, plays the erhu Lan Tung, founder of the group, was ten years old when she was first introduced to the erhu. “I was fortunate enough to be attending school when they were looking for students my age to form a Chinese orchestra. The orchestra and my father picked out the erhu for me. My father liked the sweet folk songs and was hoping for me to play them for him one day, but it took a long time for that to happen because I was first led to playing more of the classical repertoire.”
Lan came to Canada from Taiwan in 1994. “I was attending the Chinese Cultural University at the time, studying erhu performance, when my father decided that the whole family had to move here. I was offered opportunities to play but needed people to play with.”
So Lan turned to jamming with musicians at cafés and clubs trying her hand at a variety of styles from Gypsy to Celtic before forming Orchid Ensemble. “This is the most flexible Chinese ensemble I have played with,” she explained. “It is fortunate to have musicians who are willing to step outside tradition.
The direction we are working on is more creative improvisation in the repertoire, much like in jazz. Each year we produce a feature concert with different musicians from different genres of music – from African to Klezmer, Iranian, and Japanese taikos.” Mei Han, raised during the Cultural Revolution in China, plays the zheng
Mei Han, grew up during the Cultural Revolution in China and studied music from the age of ten. “At age 16 I joined a professional music ensemble in North East China. Most Chinese, after they graduated from high school, had to go to the country to help with farming. Playing the zheng gave me an opportunity to escape that.”
While the emphasis in music conservatories was on western style, Mei preferred the traditional Chinese music and studied with a professor from Xi’an Conservatory who taught the zheng by oral tradition. “What appealed to me was the sound. It was such a privilege for me to be able to study in a traditional way.”
Mei was then transferred to Beijing to play with the Zhan You Ensemble, which is considered the most famous ensemble in China. “I was still a soldier and as army personnel I couldn’t do anything independently – I had to be transferred.”
Mei’s interest in traditional music grew so she went back to school to take her masters degree at the China Arts Academy in Beijing with emphasis on minority groups. She walked the mountains, going from village to village, learning their music. “This gave me a chance to open my eyes and ears to the music that is not known by the majority of Chinese. I had lots of chances to contact really poor but pure and warm-hearted people. That opened my heart. I decided to leave China and in 1996 I applied at UBC for their ethnomusicology program which emphasizes Chinese music.”
In addition to playing with the Orchid Ensemble, Mei tours with her husband, Randy Raine Reusch and recently gave a world premiere performance with the China Philharmonic Orchestra in Beijing of a zheng concerto. “China is opening its doors for new works. For me it is like completing a circle, to perform that piece on the biggest stage in China. It was an acceptance and acknowledgement of what I have done and who I am.”
Jonathan Bernard plays gamelan, marimba and percussion Meanwhile, Jonathan Bernard, the third member of Orchid Ensemble, is thoroughly enjoying the cultural exchange. “While I’m being introduced to their (Lan and Mei’s) culture I get to introduce them to the beauty of this country. That’s part of the touring experience – to see the areas we go to, the people, the sights and culture. It’s very special to be involved in this exchange where I am learning about a whole other tradition with colours that strengthen my own involvement in other styles of music making.”
Jonathan’s interest in Asian music was casual at first, playing the gamelan at UBC. “They are the most beautiful magical percussion instruments. I was drawn as much to the gorgeous ringing metals (bells and gongs) as to the style of music.”
Then he met others who were playing various styles that combined music from the East and West. As principal percussionist with the Vancouver Island Symphony and member of chamber music groups, Jonathan was fascinated with the possibilities of combining traditions. “So when an opening came up in Lan’s group I was excited about adding marimba and other forms of percussion. I knew the possibilities were huge.”
Jonathan speaks with passion about the repertoire and performance style. “The music can’t be classified in one specific genre. Our repertoire is so diverse that we can perform to a wide variety of audiences, from folk festivals to intimate chamber music concerts. This is chamber music as we know it in the West, but it uses instruments from China.