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Unveiling the Er-Hu 

by Marty Demarest


t's a wild, risk-taking endeavor on everyone's part," laughs Kendall Feeney, who on Friday launches her 12th and final season as the artistic director of Spokane's only contemporary chamber music ensemble with a concert called Asian Zephyr. "It's wild for the composers who tried it out," she says of the program's East-meets-West music, "and it's wild for us to see if the tonal balance is going to work. And it's wild for the audience for going with us."


But wild rides for the audience are Feeney's specialty. During her tenure with Zephyr, she's consistently challenged her listeners to go someplace they've never been before; and the concerts' steady attendance and audiences' enthusiastic reactions have regularly rewarded Spokane with some of the most invigorating music presented anywhere in the Northwest. Zephyr has become a cultural institution, and Feeney shows no signs of flagging enthusiasm even in her final months with the ensemble.


"This is actually our second East/West concert," she says, explaining that one trip through the concept wasn't enough to explore everything that she found exciting. "I really wanted to feature the er-hu, and music that's written for it, she says."


The instrument that got Feeney excited, the er-hu, is a traditional Chinese instrument. Like the violin, an er-hu is played by touching the instrument's strings to produce different tones with one hand, while drawing a bow across the strings with the other. Aside from those similarities, however, the er-hu is profoundly different from any Western stringed instrument. Where violins, violas and cellos all have four strings, the er-hu has only two; and instead of having a free bow that can be set down separate from the instrument, the er-hu's bow, which is made of bamboo, is threaded between the two strings.


"I was in junior high school when I first saw someone play the er-hu," explains Chien-Ru Shen, who will be playing the instrument during Friday's concert. "It was an er-hu player from Hong Kong, playing as part of a larger concert. I thought the sound was so different from the violin."


Despite the er-hu's reputation of being a tricky instrument to play -- the musician must be particularly agile with only two strings to work with -- Shen says that she was aided by her background of being a pianist: "It wasn't too hard for me, because my left hand is quite quick. I'm not left-handed, but maybe playing the piano helped me with the technique."


Feeney, however, is quick to point out that while the music may not be as flashy and fast as some Western classical music, the virtuosity required of the er-hu player is no less difficult to achieve. "Here you have a piece in a Western tonality, and the understanding of pitch is so different between the er-hu concerto [by composer Shueh-Shuan Liu] and traditional music for the er-hu. On top of that, she's working with a piano, and trying to make the er-hu speak Western 20th-century traditional music's language. And I don't think a lot of people will realize that she's playing virtually the entire concerto on one string!"





Despite the challenges, Shen explains that she prefers tackling contemporary music for the er-hu. "I don't like playing too much traditional music, because the accompaniments do not sound good with the er-hu. I like new pieces more -- and I like playing transcriptions from the violin. But it's hard -- [the first] movement of the concerto is my favorite part, and it's like it's written for a violinist. You can see my fingers jump around the string a lot."


"The rehearsals have been fascinating for me," Feeney continues, "because I don't know whether to hop in with a Western sensibility with this piece. It's tempting, because that's what I know. But the er-hu is so different. When it plays higher notes, it diminishes in volume. What we're used to, in Western classical music, is that when we rise in pitch, we rise in volume. So it's a very interesting line we're exploring, between me not wanting to impose all of my Western sensibilities, and trying to just go with the music."


That difference in sensibility is something that Feeney says is apparent in every work on the program. "There's a piece called 'Ancient Music' by Ge Gan-Ru, and it's all about musical color and sparseness. It's played almost entirely inside the piano, directly on the strings, using an untraditional way of playing the piano to produce the sounds of traditional Chinese instruments. And there's a lot of space between the notes; you're in each moment a little more, rather than having a sense of developing the music and going somewhere specific. With [Colin] McPhee's 'Balinese Ceremonial Music,' " which Feeney will play with pianist Greg Presley, "it's just a wonderful clattering of sounds, because it's a gamelan orchestra arranged for two pianos."


Opening the concert, however, is a work entitled "China Song," by composer Jonathan Middleton, who teaches theory and composition at Eastern Washington University. Written for percussion ensemble and er-hu, the work was written for Shen when she was a student at the school and the EWU Percussion Ensemble. Even though he's an American composer with a strong background of training in Western classical music, Middleton has written a work that begins with a traditional Chinese folk song and develops it freely. It's the perfect representation of the concert's concept, as Middleton takes the tune, and rather than marching


it through its paces, meditates


on it.

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