The National Chinese Orchestra Taiwan tells stories of the East Asian island nation through classical Chinese music. According to associate conductor, Sheng-Wen (“Adam”) Chou these highly talented musicians reflect their homeland by combining Taiwanese opera or Taiwanese traditional arts with its music.
In addition, Chou says, the National Chinese Orchestra Taiwan incorporates Aboriginal music from Taiwan as “a very crucial part of our yearly program”.
Chou and several musicians spoke to Pancouver at the Museum of Vancouver in advance of their free concert at the Orpheum Theatre at 7:30 p.m. on Saturday (September 2). Vancouver TAIWANfest will present the concert, entitled Splendid Formosa. (Tickets are available here.)
“I hope our music brings some new ideas to the Canadian people,” Chou says.
Watch the orchestra perform Dizi Concerto: Love of Rhalupalingi.
The concertmaster, Chen-Ling Liu, points out that even though “Chinese” is in the orchestra’s name, it plays Taiwanese music.
“My goal is for the audience in Vancouver to feel the different aspects of the very beautiful music from Taiwan,” Liu tells Pancouver in Mandarin. “Also, for the Taiwanese people here—when they hear the music play—they will feel emotional.”
Concertmaster Liu is leader of the wind section and principal dizi, as well as a composer. In a 2019 article in the Ann Arbor Observer, reviewer France Kai-Hwa Wang described her duet performance of “Spring Dawn at Yang-Ming Mountain” with flautist Amy Porter as “electric, with notes flying up and down”.
Principal percussionist Ya-Hsueh Lin has brought her bamboo xylophone. She plans to play this instrument in the orchestra’s rendition of “Clinking Coins”.
“We are open to the choice of Eastern or Western percussion instruments,” the principal percussionist tells Pancouver in Mandarin (translated by Chou). “We set out the percussion by what the musical work is talking about. Especially for the Taiwanese work, there are a lot of Taiwanese percussion instruments that we can use.”
Orchestra performs classical and contemporary music
The National Chinese Orchestra Taiwan was formed in 1984 and is based in the Shilin District of Taipei. Chou says that it has recorded about 20 albums. The musicians work with about 10 different composers a year, all from Asia and mostly from Taiwan. They perform classical as well as contemporary compositions.
“An album is all new works—original and newly composed,” Chou emphasizes.
The orchestra is under the Taiwan Ministry of Culture. Musicians and orchestra leadership choose what to perform. They play 12 to 14 major concerts per year, mostly in Taipei but also in other Taiwanese cities such as Taichung and Kaohsiung. In addition, the National Chinese Orchestra has a “promotion series” of 20 to 30 annual concerts, often aimed at engaging children and youths.
Meet the members of the National Chinese Orchestra Taiwan in Vancouver.
Speaking to Pancouver, string section leader Meng-Lan Gao cites a long list of Chinese string instruments performed by orchestra members. She is the principal zhong-hu performer.
Meanwhile, the orchestra also includes the erhu, which a two-stringed bowed instrument sometimes called the Chinese violin. It is the best known Chinese string instrument in the West.
Gao points out that the erhu was a traditional instrument for many centuries. However, a major evolution occurred about 100 years ago with the rise of modern interpretations. Gao hopes that the Canadian audience will appreciate the different harmonies that her string section will present at the Splendid Formosa concert.
Musicians play yang-qin and sheng
Plucked string instruments are also a cornerstone of traditional Chinese music. The leader of this section, Ming-Hui Ling, plays the yang-qin. It’s a dulcimer instrument, she tells Pancouver in Mandarin. However, she notes that it doesn’t sound like European cimbaloms.
“The yang-qin has a different timbre,” Ling states in Mandarin.
One of the more avant-garde members of the orchestra is Chi-Mi Chen, who’s principal of the sheng and a composer. One of the oldest Chinese instruments, the sheng dates back more than 3,000 years.
“It’s two-directional; you can blow and you can breathe in—in the same tone,” Chen says in Mandarin. “It’s the only instrument in the world in which you can do these things.”
According to the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the sheng is also “the only Chinese wind instrument capable of sounding many notes at the same time.”
Chen studied world music in graduate school and can also play the sitar, piano, and saxophone.
“Actually, he’s a genius,” Chou says with a smile.
Vancouver TAIWANfest will present the National Chinese Orchestra Taiwan in a free concert called Splendid Formosa at 7:30 p.m. on Saturday (September 2) at the Orpheum Theatre in Vancouver. Tickets are available through Eventbrite. Find the orchestra on Facebook.