North American Guqin Association

Scholarly Arts of China and Guqin and Xiao Concert Report

Presented by NAGA and the Asian Art Museum

San Francisco CA, February, 2005

During the first two weeks of February, visitors to San Francisco's Asian Art Museum were treated to a rare glimpse into the heart and soul of the Chinese scholar. Li Xiangting, distinguished professor of guqin and xiao at the prestigious Central Conservatory of Music in Beijing and current President of the China Guqin Committee, was invited as a featured artist as part of the month long “Scholarly Arts of China” program. This program, co-sponsored by NAGA and the Asian Art Museum (and coinciding with the Chinese New Year), was designed to celebrate and promote the rich and diverse treasures of Chinese scholarly artistic culture. During the first two weeks, Professor Li gave demonstrations in the traditional Chinese arts of calligraphy, classical landscape and modern painting, guqin and xiao. For the second two weeks, NAGA founder Wang Fei gave demonstrations of guqin and guzheng.

 Debra Evans, a writer from Mill Valley, said, “I was very impressed with how generous Professor Li was in answering my questions about painting. I have been an admirer of Chinese painting for several years but until now had never had the opportunity to watch someone create a painting in person. It was a wonderful experience. What really stood out for me however was his demonstration of guqin. I had never heard of the instrument before and was amazed by how beautiful and peaceful the sound was. After hearing it I went down to the museum gift shop and purchased a CD of his and also arranged my schedule so that I could come to his concert that night. I even brought two friends with me.”

The guqin, with its ancient history and lore, refined tones and inextricable link to Chinese painting, poetry and philosophy, has long been considered to be one of the finest examples of Chinese scholarly art. In ancient China, the scholar was expected to have mastery in four arts; guqin, painting, calligraphy and Go. In modern times it is rare to find a person who has mastered one of these arts, much less all of them.

 Li Xiangting is widely considered to be the finest guqin player of his generation. In addition to guqin, he is also a master of the xiao and recognized in China as a world-class painter, calligrapher, poet and scholar.

The highlight of the two weeks was a guqin and xiao concert by Professor Li and Wang Fei that took place midway through Li Xiangting's stay on the evening of February 10th, 2005. For many of the 400 people who were in attendance, it was the first time that they were able to experience hearing the guqin played live.

The concert was comprised of five parts; an introductory warm-up piece, a selection of solo guqin music, guqin and xiao duets, an improvisational section, and a closing solo piece.

The introductory piece, Guan Shan Yue (Moon Over The Mountain Pass) was played by Wang Fei, founder and director of the North American Guqin Association and council member if the China Guqin Committee. Wang Fei is one of the very few people who have truly mastered the guqin. This, combined with her background as a bestselling author with a Master's degree in Multimedia puts her in the very unique position to not only give performances of the highest caliber but also to promote the guqin worldwide.

Guan Shan Yue was intended to allow the audience to become acclimated to the refined and subtle sounds of the guqin. Guan Shan Yue, although over 200 years old, is considered one of the newer pieces in the guqin repertoire. Considering that the United States is barely over 200 years old itself, the thought that this piece was considered “young” in the world of guqin brought laughter from the audience.

Following this musical introduction, Professor Li took the stage to begin the main part of the concert – a selection of four of the most famous solo guqin pieces in the classical repertoire.

The first piece played was Liu Shui (Flowing Water), written over 700 years ago and considered by many to be the most famous of classical compositions.

The next piece played was Youlan (The Solitary Orchid) one of the most profound and mysterious pieces in the guqin repertoire. Youlan is over 1400 years old and utilizes a number of specialized playing techniques. The melody is deep and multilayered, requiring tremendous concentration not only from the performer in order to be able to express the deep feeling of the piece, but from the listener as well. Jim Binkley, a guqin player from Oregon who flew down to San Francisco especially for the concert was quoted as saying, “the only version of Youlan I had heard before was the Guan Pinghu recording, and FINALLY I heard a version in which I not only liked the piece, but I think I understood musically. This is a high complement in more ways than one.”

The next piece played was the classic Xiao Xiang Shui Yun (Mist and Cloud Over Xiao and Xiang Rivers), a 700 year old piece requiring a tremendous level of technical mastery in order to convey the emotional depth necessary to bring the piece fully alive.

Professor Li finished the solo portion of the concert with the piece Yi Guren (Remembering an Old Friend), a 200 year old piece with a deeply tender and moving melody. Krista Bessinger, an executive for a Bay Area software company said, “This was my first opportunity to hear guqin music live and it was a wonderful experience. Hearing guqin music live brings forth a quality that I have not heard on CD. For me, the highlight of the concert was the piece Yi Guren. It had a gentle, plaintive feeling that made me think of fond memories from my childhood. The good feeling from that piece is something that I will remember for a long time.”

The next part of the program consisted of two duet pieces played on guqin by Wang Fei and xiao by Professor Li. The xiao, a thin, vertical, end-blown bamboo flute with a 2000 years old history is considered ideal for accompanying the guqin. Professor Li is one of the world's living masters of the xiao and in his hands the full emotional spectrum of the instrument is brought forth.

The duets played were Meihua San Nong (Three Variations of the Plum Blossom) and Ping Sha Luo Yan (Wild Geese Descending on the Sandbank), two of the most popular and often performed pieces in the repertoire. Margaret Palmer, a graphic designer from San Francisco, said, “Wow, the sound of the guqin and the xiao together was wonderful. It was amazing to hear how the two instruments could weave and blend into each other. I felt enveloped in sound.”

Following the duets was the improvisational part of the performance. Improvisation, historically an important part of guqin playing in ancient times, gradually faded out until, for the last thousand years, it was considered all but lost. Li Xiangting is considered the primary modern player responsible for bringing the art of improvisation back to the guqin.

 For this performance he chose to play three improvisations – one on guqin, one of xiao, and one sung with guqin accompaniment. The audience was asked to participate by coming up with themes. After five of six themes were collected, the audience would vote to see which was the most popular one and that was the one that Professor Li would improvise on. The audience had a great time coming up with themes. Some themes were very funny, some more serious.

For the guqin improvisation, the theme that the audience chose was “Snow in the Mountains.” Professor Li took a moment to gather his thoughts and then began to play, slowly coaxing forth the improvised melody until it felt to all in the audience that they were embraced by the gentle hush of winter. The feeling was serene and peaceful.

For the xiao improvisation the theme chosen was “Dancing Cranes.” For most of the people in the audience, it was the first time for them to hear solo xiao. Several people commented afterwards that this was their favorite piece of the evening.

For the vocal improvisation, audience members were asked to write down a poem in Chinese which Professor Li would sing with guqin accompaniment. While the audience was writing down poems (which took several minutes) Professor Li played the short and lively 600 year old piece Jiu Kuang (Drunken Ecstasy).

The closing piece of the concert was Guangling San, the oldest, most esteemed and technically difficult piece in the guqin repertoire. In Guangling San, the full range of the guqin is explored. Mick Laugs, an improvisational acting teacher, said, “This was my first time hearing guqin and while I loved the entire concert, my favorite piece was the last one, Guangling San. I had no idea that the guqin could sound like that. Hearing Li Xiangting play, I felt like I was in the presence of a true master.”

When the last notes of Guangling San dipped into silence the audience gave a rousing applause and standing ovation. Many then came to the stage to look more closely at the guqin and the landscape paintings of Li Xiangting's that served as a backdrop. Others came to take photos and to speak with Professor Li and Wang Fei. Included among these was the staff of Real Music, a Sausalito, California based record label which will be releasing a CD of Li Xiangting's guqin and xiao improvisations in the Spring of 2005. Paul Staverand, marketing Vice President for Real Music, emailed Wang Fei after the concert to say “We enjoyed the wonderful concert last night. We were amazed by how you and Professor Li played in such beautiful unison. Both the traditional pieces and the improvisations were excellent. Please convey our appreciation to Professor Li.”

Eventually everyone filed out of the hall and into the San Francisco evening, filled with the wonderful sounds of the guqin reverberating in their hearts and the memory of a rare and precious evening.

A week later NAGA received an email from someone named May which, in its way, sums up the impact of the performance. In her email she said, “This is probably the best concert I ever went to. Words cannot describe my feeling. Your powerful music made me cry. It has been a week but the music has still stayed in my mind and I could not forget it. I like all of the pieces very much. I think my very favorite part of this concert was your guqin and xiao duet as well as all of the improvisation. This is the first time that I got to hear this music in person and it was amazing.”

That pretty much says it all.

Josh Michaell

North American Guqin Association


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