“Music produces a kind of pleasure which human nature cannot do without.” - Confucius
It is said that Confucius was a talented and serious musician, and that may account in part for his appreciation for the power and value of music, but at an erhu concert at William & Mary this fall, it was another talented and serious musician who reminded the audience that music is a most compelling and transcendent art form.
Each year, the William & Mary Confucius Institute (WMCI) makes its Confucius Institute Day a multi-day event, with an open house, numerous activities, demonstrations and performances. One of the highlights of the festivities this year was a concert by Feng Wang, an accomplished musician and volunteer teacher at WMCI.
Ms. Wang plays both the flute and erhu and performs and teaches traditional Chinese instruments. She is pursuing a graduate degree in musicology from Beijing Normal University and in addition to winning several competitions in China and abroad, is an experienced and enthusiastic musical ambassador. Before coming to Williamsburg, she participated in a Confucius Institute Performance Tour to Scandinavia.
On September 26, 2015, Ms. Wang transfixed the William & Mary audience a diverse repertoire for erhu, with pieces, solo and ensemble -- spanning from the early 20th century to contemporary times--that showed the full range of the erhu, tonally, dynamically and emotionally. For the concert, Wang played a combination of solo and chamber pieces, joining forces with William & Mary senior and pianist Sarah Fredrick; local violinist Carl Andersen; and Xiyue Sun, a sophomore at William & Mary and guzheng player. Her favorite composers are Wenjin Liu, and Jianmin Wang, and her program expressed their styles, from joyful to melancholy, folk song traditions to jazz. She and her instrument moved effortlessly between the styles, being true and sincere with each unique expression.
Ms. Wang began her study at seven years old. Her mother made what she thought was a very practical, logical choice when she bought Ms. Wang her first ehru when she was seven. Her mother wanted her to study music, and living in the northern part of China, where winters are cold, it seemed to be something she could practice inside at home. It was also easy to carry. And finally, Ms. Wang notes with a smile, “My mother thought because it had only two strings it would be very easy to learn.”
It turned out that it’s the very fact that there are just two strings that the ehru is so challenging to play well, much less to master. Although the erhu is often compared to a “Chinese violin” it has a unique sound and technical challenges. The bow looks like a violin bow, but it is placed between the strings, and both sides are used, whereas in western instruments the bow passes over the strings. There is also no fingerboard, so the student must develop a sensitive touch and a finely tuned ear to get correct intonation.
“My first year studying, it was so hard, and my mother said I sounded like a donkey!”
Ms. Wang clearly has the dedication and love for the instrument, but she acknowledges it has taken a lot of perseverance. It was only after years of study and practice that finally, “In middle school, I was first able to make a beautiful sound.” The piece that was her turning point is The Grapes are Ripe, a playful upbeat piece expressing the joy of an abundant harvest. It was part of her program at William & Mary and showed that although her mother may have selected the ehru for practical reasons, her instincts were perfect, because Ms. Wang plays with a passion, talent and sheer delight that bring out the all the potential of this wonderful instrument.
The longer the erhu, the lower the strings for a lower tone; as Wang describes, this is better for sad songs.. And for all her youthful vivacity and ebullience, when she takes up her bow and starts to play Moon Night, her face and body become serious, respectful, poised, and as she plays the melancholy piece, the strings are like a voice, sharing a poignant song. “To me, the strings are like someone singing.”
This skilled and creative musician, who makes her instrument sing, expresses her culture and history and also transcends them, reminding the listener that emotions, music and nature are universal.
"When one has mastered music completely and regulates his heart and mind accordingly, the natural, correct, gentle, and sincere heart is easily developed and joy attends its development. This joy proceeds into a feeling of calm. This calm continues long. In this unbroken calm the man is Heaven within himself. Like unto Heaven, he is spiritual. Like unto Heaven, though he speak not, he is accepted. Spiritual, he commands awe, without displaying anger." (Book of
Rites, sect. iii., 23.)