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Echoes of Hakka Music
In November 2000, the Xiamen Philharmonic Orchestra debuted Echo from the Earth Building, a 37-minute symphonic work under the baton of Zheng Xiaoying, at the 16th World Hakka People's Meeting in Longyan, east China's Fujian Province. The piece features the Hakka people's history and lives.

The score, the orchestra, and especially the renowned 73-year-old conductor, herself from a Hakka family, all thrilled the Hakka audiences. They responded with rhythmic standing ovations and sang along with the last chorus.

One year later, Echo from the Earth Buildings, scored by Liu Yuan, won the Golden Bell Award issued by the Chinese Musicians' Association.

So far, the Xiamen Orchestra has performed the work in six provinces and toured Japan, all with Zheng as conductor.

Tonight and tomorrow, Beijing's concert-goers can finally enjoy the piece at the Forbidden City Concert Hall.

Birth of a Symphony

Centuries ago, Hakka people left their original settlement in central China to escape warfare. They suffered misery and hardship to finally arrive on the southeast coast of China. They rebuilt their houses there and have been living and working in peace and contentment in the area ever since.

Zheng's father, son of a Hakka family in Longyan, left his hometown to study abroad among the first group of students given scholarships by the Chinese Government in 1916.

In February 2000, Zheng visited her father's birth place for the first time and was immediately impressed by the culture, the history and the traditional earth buildings, called tulou in Chinese.

"Why not interpret all these in a symphony? The idea flashed across my mind at once," Zheng said. "How great it would be if the Hakka people heard music specially composed for them at the World Hakka People's Meeting."

Zheng soon turned to Liu Yuan with the Central Conservatory of Music for help. Though not a Hakka, the 41-year-old composer lived in the Hakka region for a long time in his boyhood.

Liu went to Yongding County in Longyan to refresh his memory and feelings about the Hakka people, collecting folk music and witnessing the region's development.

Liu finished the score three months later. "I closed myself up in a small room, cut off the telephone, refused to see anybody and took instant noodle as meals," Liu said.

"The music welled up like a fountain and I could not stop even one minute. I could not help but pour my heart and blood into the score," he said.

Consisting of five movements, the score has two major themes: a workers' chant and a popular folk song, which are both derived from local folk songs.

Trombones play the work chant to start the first movement. The brass winds and drums produce powerful sounds to symbolize Hakka people's strength, courage and unity.

The second movement features an original folk song sung by 76-year-old Li Tiansheng, hailed as "king of the folk song" by the local people. Li also plays a traditional Hakka bamboo instrument.

Then two flutes play an emotional nocturne to symbolize a Hakka mother's cradlesong in the quiet of night. The harp and percussion produce clear, pleasant notes like children counting stars. At the end of this movement a young Hakka girl blows through a leaf, creating a beautiful melody.

The music then speeds up and turns more energetic. Liu blends the traditional music used for the local dragon and lion dances into this part to show the Hakka people's hard work and their celebration for the harvest.

Then the music turns slow and emotional again to express the Hakka people's delicate inner feelings and respect for their ancestors.

The whole piece ends with a powerful chorus of folk songs.

"Liu has a good sense and deep love for Hakka people and composed a great symphony with folk nuances using contemporary composing techniques," Zheng said.

"Liu is talented. He refined the cream of Hakka's folk music to create an emotional and powerful symphony," said Wu Zuqiang, honored chairman of the Chinese Musicians' Association.

Now the piece has become part of the permanent repertoire of the five-year-old Xiamen Philharmonic Orchestra that was founded by Zheng.

Birth of An Orchestra

In the spring of 1997, when she had just retired as the chief conductor of the China Central Opera House, Zheng received an unexpected call from Xiamen.

Cai Wanghuai, chairman of the Xiamen People's Political Consultative Conference, told her that Xiamen-born world-renowned pianist Yin Chengzong had played the concerto Yellow River at more than 300 concerts around the world, but had never performed in his hometown because the city didn't have its own symphony orchestra, even though it is called the "Island of Piano" and has produced quite a few musicians like Yin.

Cai earnestly invited Zheng to Xiamen to establish an orchestra. Moved by the fertile musical atmosphere and tradition in Xiamen, and the local people's sincere expectation and trust, Zheng left Beijing to serve as the artistic director and chief conductor of the fledgling orchestra.

"I decided to lead the new orchestra to introduce and promote symphonic music in a city where people had seldom attended a symphony concert," Zheng said.

It is not so easy. Already in her 70s, Zheng manages almost every aspect of the orchestra, from recruiting instrumentalists to buying instruments; from raising funds to looking for rehearsal space.

However, the conductor, who is known for her rigorous, passionate and exquisite interpretations, has overcome all the difficulties to bring up a young but promising orchestra.

Under her direction, the classical orchestra started rehearsing the classical pieces of the 18th century, then moved on through the romantic style to some contemporary works. Now they are able to perform a broad repertoire spanning Haydn, Mozart, Beethoven and some Chinese composers.

Since its debut in September 1998 in Xiamen, the orchestra has performed more than 300 concerts and widely toured the country.

In May 2000, pianist Yin Chengzong came back to his hometown to give a concert marking his 50-year professional career. With the orchestra, he eventually fulfilled his wish, playing Yellow River accompanied by the Xiamen Philharmonic Orchestra.

To popularize the classical music, Zheng gives brief introductions before each concert and also opens the rehearsal to the public to bring the symphony closer to audiences.

In addition, Zheng and the orchestra perform on the campuses of local colleges to develop fans among young students.

Owing to her devoted work, the Xiamen Philharmonic Orchestra has become the most important part of the local people's musical life and it has won a number of sincere fans.

(China Daily November 5, 2002)

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