Recitals of music for the guzheng — the ancient 21-stringed Chinese zither — are not exactly staples of the Washington concert scene. So it was a rare treat when Bing Xia and Rujia Teng, two virtuosos of this extraordinary instrument, arrived at the Smithsonian’s Sackler Gallery this past weekend for a series of performances of music inspired by the mythical phoenix.
The phoenix — a bird that famously burned to death and was reborn from its own ashes — has been a powerful symbol in Chinese art for centuries, and the program mixed ancient folk songs and traditional music with very contemporary works, all of the music impressionistic and often highly programmatic. “The Phoenix Soars,” for example, evoked a bird in effortless flight, while the colorful “A Hundred Birds Worship the Phoenixes” resonated with pitch-perfect bird calls. Perhaps the most beautiful work on the program — a modern piece by Huan Liu titled “Phoenixes Flying Together” — created a sense of floating weightlessly over a vast landscape, the gentle rise and fall of the melodic lines like the slow beating of wings.
The almost orchestral range of sonic color that the two players drew from their instruments — bent notes, harplike swirls, percussive effects and so on — was little short of breathtaking, and both delivered precise, deeply felt performances, despite the distractions of playing in an open art gallery rather than a quiet concert hall. Bing Xia, the director of the Washington Guzheng Society, displayed her virtuosity in “The Phoenix Pursues His Mate,” managing its intricate finger-work with ease. Her gifted student Rujia Teng, though still only 17, proved to be an accomplished young virtuoso in her own right, turning in a poetic and absolutely riveting account of “Nirvana of the Phoenixes,” a modern work by Deyuan Zheng.
Brookes is a freelance writer.