China Anhui Traditional Orchestra offers variety, energy

By Joan Reinthaler
Tuesday, March 1, 2011

Just as in Western music, there is a sound ideal in the music of China that originates in the language itself and runs from vocal production through the timbres of individual instruments to the sonorities of a full orchestra. To Western ears, it's a nasal sound and more focused on contrasting textures and constant motion than on the blended sonorities and lyricism we're more used to.

On Sunday, the China Anhui Traditional Orchestra, led by composer-conductor Zhu Xiaogu, brought to the Kennedy Center Concert Hall a program of recently composed pieces and folk arrangements that was notable for its variety, its energy and for the subtle inflections that whole instrumental sections lent to their lines.

Buried among the 80-or-so players were a small group of cellos and a couple of basses, but there were erhus (two-stringed bowed instruments) instead of violins, plucked and strummed pipas and daruams to the conductor's right, two yanqins (hammered dulcimers) on center stage and, behind them, a whole phalanx of flutes, whistles and a brash, ear-splitting suona (a reed instrument with a brass bell). This was topped off by a splendid collection of percussion - gongs, blocks, rattles and all the rest - used sometimes with delicacy and sometimes with good-humored abandon.

Three of the pieces that featured soloists - Zhao Cong on the pipa, Yu Hongmei on the erhu and Chen Huilong on the flute - offered a closer look at the almost human sounds these instruments can make in expert hands. And among the evening's show-stoppers were a terrific set of short examples of four different styles of theater music by conductor Zhu and a concluding raucous romp through the festive folk dance "Flower Drum Lantern Show." Reinthaler is a freelance writer.

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