Oct. 11, 2001

Who: Karen Huaqi Han, erhu artist, will be the featured soloist.
What: World Premiere of Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon: Concerto for Erhu and Chamber Orchestra"; members of the Pacific Symphony Orchestra, Tan Dun, composer and conductor. The program will also feature the West Coast Premiere of Dun's Concerto for Water Percussion and Orchestra, with David Cossin, soloist; presented by the Philharmonic Society of Orange County and part of the Eclectic Orange Festival.
When: Friday and Saturday, Oct. 19 and 20, at 8 p.m., with Sunday matinee, Oct. 21, at 3 p.m.
Where: Irvine Barclay Theatre, off of Campus and West Peltason drives, on the UC Irvine campus.
Cost: $33-$38.
Information: (949) 854-4646 or on-line at

Concert featuring ancient Chinese instrument

By Michael Rydzynski
For Irvine World News

Karen Huaqi Han
It's a violin-like instrument with two strings played by bowing between rather than on top of the strings.

"It's actually more like a viola - very deep sound, very emotional and touching," said Karen Huaqi (Hwa-Chee) Han, whose specialty is performing on the ancient Chinese instrument called the erhu (ARE-who).

Han, a native Chinese living in the United States since 1988, will be featured in the world premiere performance of composer Tan Dun's "Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon" at the Irvine Barclay for three performances, beginning Friday, Oct. 19.

The concert, presented by the Irvine-based Philharmonic Society of Orange County as part of its Eclectic Orange Festival, will also include the West Coast premiere of Dun's Concerto for Water Percussion and Orchestra, featuring David Cossin. Dun himself will conduct a smaller version of the Pacific Symphony Orchestra in both his works.

For Han, who attended the demanding Central Conservatory of Music in Beijing at the same time as Dun, despite his being 10 years her senior and who worked with him on some of his student compositions, this will be the first time she will play one of his works professionally. And she couldn't be more excited about it.

"His music is really wonderful," she said. "It makes me really think about my instrument. It has lots of new ideas, creates a lot of new techniques and poses lots of challenge to the performer.

"There are some (effects of) birds singing I have to do. And the finger plays on the strings or the fingers of the left hand has to pizzicato (pluck).

"We (erhu performers) play the melody and not double-stops at all. Which is what makes Tan Dun's piece different: You have to play the two strings together, which is extremely hard on the erhu. And his part is very high - also different."

But Han isn't complaining.

"Tan Dun understands the erhu and knows how to play it himself," she said. "And the cadenza part is wonderful: It has no tonality, it's just for me to express certain emotions freely."

Dun's work, named after the 2000 Oscar-winning film for which he wrote the score and subtitled "Concerto for Erhu and Chamber Orchestra," was inspired by and includes music from the soundtrack, on which the erhu solos were played by Yo-Yo Ma on standard cello.

"Tan Dun told me he originally wrote (the music) for the erhu," Han said, "but, due to budget concerns, it was not ideal to use the erhu, so he used Yo-Yo Ma's music instead.

"This has music that everybody who's seen the film would know from the soundtrack," Han said. "It's floating and beautiful. There are lots of slides and vibrato - very characteristic for the instrument. It speaks my language."

At the time of last weekend's interview, Han was in Northern California to give the premiere of another concerto for erhu, this one by Joe Curiale, whose earlier "Gates of Gold" erhu concerto she introduced with the New West Symphony in Ventura County in the spring of 1997.

Later that summer, she became the first soloist of a Chinese instrument in the Hollywood Bowl's then 75-year history when she played a transcription of Vittorio Monti's violin piece, "Csardas."

Yet the Walnut resident doesn't limit her activities to classical music.

She has also performed and recorded with the modern jazz group Hiroshima and recently recorded two songs of world music with keyboardist David Arkenstone. Also, she has played rock and pop.

"I try very hard to develop (repertoire for) my instrument and to introduce my instrument to the Western world as much as possible," she said.

"One way is by performing in all different styles: I want to tell people what I feel. Another way is through my lessons with my students. Another is giving talks."

Han, who performs 30 times a year and has 20 students, is scheduled to give a one-hour seminar on the erhu at Borders in South Coast Plaza on Monday, Oct. 16, from 7 to 8 p.m.

"I always think, 'What ways can I let erhu music blend well with Western music?' But my favorite is classical music. I love classical music."

Han also has done a fair share of film music. Currently having some dozen or so CDs in release, including soundtracks, Han can be heard in such films and CDs as "The Last Emperor," "The Joy Luck Club" and "The Little Mermaid." Her latest film, "Judas and Jesus," with music by Bill Conti, will be released in May.

"Bill Conti loves the erhu sound," Han said. "And I was very impressed: The whole film has nothing to do with Chinese culture. He just wanted to introduce the instrument as capable of playing with deeper feelings than a violin. This is the first time the erhu was used in a non-Chinese way."

Considering her love affair with the erhu, Han initially wasn't too crazy about it when her father, who plays the instrument, made her start on it at age 6, becoming her first teacher.

"He thought the instrument had a longer career life than some others," she related. "At first, I was not interested at all. But little by little, I became interested. And I loved the songs I had to learn. But I still did not think I would be an erhu specialist."

Until, at age 10, it was time for Han to audition for the Central Conservatory, which only accepted two students on the erhu each year out of more than 160 applicants. She made it on the first try.

"And once in school, you always try harder," she said.

But becoming one of the best on her instrument exacted a price: She was not allowed to live with her parents anymore. In fact, as it turned out, she would not live with her parents again until they joined her only last year.

And although she believes living on her own in a new country (the United states) made her a stronger person, making many new friends along the way, she is very happy with her situation.

"Now I'm enjoying family life again," she said.

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