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It may be a difficult feat, but for over 20 years the Mallarmé Chamber Players has succeeded in introducing novelties into nearly every concert season. Its concerts cross the boundaries of genres and cultures, bringing fresh sounds and fresh insights to its audience.
Sunday’s concert, as an early celebration of the Chinese New Year, played to an overflowing house. Entitled “How do you say harmonica in Chinese?” the program was the brainchild of violinist Hsiao-Mei Ku, who enlisted the help of the area’s Chinese community. The performance featured Chinese harmonica virtuoso Jia-Yi He with his battery of eight harmonicas, ranging from a tiny two-inch miniature – which he played using no hands, changing notes using only his tongue and lips – to an 18-inch monster that included multi-tiered instruments capable of handling the full chromatic scale. Jia-Yi He, born and trained in China, has appeared as soloist around the world, and is currently a faculty member of the Turtle Bay Music School in New York. He was accompanied by a classical string quartet of Mallarmé artists: Ku and Carol Chang, violins, David Marshall, viola and Leonid Zilper, cello.
The repertoire of original music for the “classical” harmonica is scant, and transcriptions – many by Jia-Yi He himself – of pieces for harmonica and string quartet dominated the program. They ranged from Chinese folksongs to “Oh, Susannah,” Vittorio Monti’s “Czardas,” And Rimsky-Korsakov’s “Flight of the Bumblebee.”
The Chinese numbers were, for us, the most interesting, because of the variety of ways in which Jia-Yi He and other arrangers adapted the pentatonic melodies to western harmonies. Surprisingly the harmonica blends well with string quartet, so that the transcriptions made musical sense. Jia-Yi He is a true virtuoso on his instrument, allowing listeners to hear how much one can actually get out of this bar of free reeds encased in wood and metal. Obviously, the instrument is quite popular in China since the full array of Jia-Yi He’s instruments were made there. And what goes around comes around; the harmonica itself is the Western descendent of the Sheng, an ancient Chinese instrument (c. 2000 years old) with free reeds, brought to Germany in 1777. The harmonica, as we know it was invented in 1820.
The regular concert was preceded by a pre-concert performance by 13-year-old violinist Wesley Shang, winner of numerous awards, who made his Carnegie Hall debut last November. Accompanied by his teacher Hsiao-Mei Ku on the piano – yes, the piano – he first played arrangements of two popular Chinese folksongs. Then, accompanied by noted gu-zheng (Chinese zither) player Jennifer Chang, he performed an arrangement of “Harvest Celebration,” a popular melody in which the two instruments imitate the sound of Chinese wind and percussion instruments. Shang put in a polished and sensitive performance, and frankly, we would have liked to hear more of Chang on the program. Not only was her playing exceptional, but she was also a pleasure to watch. Given the deep rake of the Durham Arts Council auditorium, it was easy to see every movement of her graceful fingers and stylized hand motions.
To end the concert, Wesley Shang, now in the role of Chinese yo-yo expert, gave a stunning demonstration of this acrobatic toy – quite different from the version known to American children. He was then followed by two actors costumed as a Chinese lion – more of a pussycat – in a traditional New Year’s dance, accompanied by a large festive red drum and cymbals.