The China National Traditional Orchestra’s “Rediscover Chinese Music” program incorporates lights and elaborate sets with the 10 Chinese works that it performs. (Jason Wasserman)

The China National Traditional Orchestra is fighting a battle familiar to anyone who performs classical music: getting young people to enjoy their art.

And it’s often an uphill battle. Some of the pieces the 246-member orchestra and choir performs are thousands of years old. But the ensemble, founded by influential composer and conductor Li Huanzhi in 1960, is putting new twists on its traditional classical repertoire by incorporating elements of Chinese folk and contemporary music and getting creative with staging, lighting and sets.

“If we don’t interpret the classical music in a modern time, [it] might get lost soon,” Jiang Ying, the orchestra’s resident composer, said through a translator during a phone interview from China, where the Beijing-based group was touring. Jiang said she strives to present classical music in innovative ways to “convey the modern or contemporary voice through the classical music.”

That’s where the orchestra’s “Rediscover Chinese Music” program comes in. Directed by Wang Chaoge, one of China’s most successful theater directors, the concert features 10 well-known Chinese works that prominently feature traditional instruments. Creatively arranged and given a modern twist by Jiang, each piece is elevated by lighting, set design and the addition of poetry and storytelling.

The orchestra already has performed “Rediscover Chinese Music” about 30 times in cities across China. It makes its U.S. premiere at the Kennedy Center Opera House this weekend. The ensemble then travels to New York to perform a concert version of the program at Carnegie Hall and Lincoln Center. (The equipment needed to pull off the production’s multimedia elements cannot be used in those concert halls.)

According to Wang, a significant number of youngsters have left the performances with a new interest in traditional Chinese music. She said she has overheard young concertgoers express surprise at how much they enjoyed the music as well as an interest in playing a traditional Chinese instrument.

Each selection in the “Rediscover Chinese Music” program was chosen based on its popularity, appeal and use of traditional Chinese instruments, such as the pipa (a four-stringed lute) or dizi (a bamboo flute). The works include “High Mountain and Flowing Water,” which is said to have been written nearly 3,000 years ago, “Silk Road” and Li Huanzhi’s “Spring Festival Overture.”

The visual elements of the concert — ethereal images of skyscapes, art and traditional Chinese architecture — are projected onto the stage and backdrops to evoke what Wang calls “romantic realism.”

Wang also experimented with the stage direction, and has musicians perform in unexpected areas — sometimes even in the background’s “sky.”

“Unlike the standard concert, where the musicians only play the music, in this show all of the musicians are musicians, dancers, narrators, storytellers, singers,” she said. “They play the music instruments, they tell the story in their own voices onstage and they even sing onstage. That makes it very special.

“Even though our production is made up of Chinese music, Chinese instruments and Chinese art, the conducting techniques and other elements are both universal and very modern,” Wang added.

It’s her hope that U.S. audiences, young and old, will leave the show thinking, “This is very fresh. This is very new. This conveys the message of modern Chinese artists.”

If you go
Rediscover Chinese Music by the China National Traditional Orchestra

Kennedy Center, 2700 F St. NW. 202-467-4600.

Dates: Friday-Sunday.

Prices: $20-$150.