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October 13, 2001
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Speaking through the erhu
* Musician Karen Han will play the ancient Chinese instrument next week in a world premiere of a Tan Dun concerto based on 'Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon.'

Local Headlines
By Young Chang
The Chinese erhu has just two strings. Its neck is thin and long, its sound-box base is small, the resonator is made of snakeskin and the bow of horsehair.

The erhu, which first appeared as a musical instrument 1,000 years ago, looks frail. But the musical relic bears a heavy load when in the hands of Karen Han.

It is with the erhu that Han speaks about love, peace and beauty through music. And were it not for the erhu -- a precursor to the violin -- Han, whose first language is Chinese, would not be the communicator she is today. The virtuoso erhu player will perform Oct. 19-21 in a world premiere program of "Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon Concerto for Erhu and Chamber Orchestra," at the Irvine Barclay Theatre. The performance is part of the Eclectic Orange Festival, sponsored by the Philharmonic Society of Orange County. The concert will also include a West Coast premiere of composer Tan Dun's "Concerto for Water Percussion and Orchestra in Memory of Toru Takemitsu," with soloist David Cossin.

On Tuesday, Han will also perform a solo at Borders Books, Music & Cafe in Costa Mesa to demonstrate the erhu's sounds and its traditions.

"I feel there's a lot of things sometimes I cannot use my voice or speech to talk about," the Walnut resident said. "But my music will explain it. My instrument is kind of like my equipment to get in more contact [with] the world."

Han moved to the United States from China in 1988. By then, she had become the youngest musician to earn a master's degree from the prestigious Central Conservatory of Music in Beijing. Her child-prodigy reputation and talents had even touched dignitaries such as Luciano Pavarotti, Margaret Thatcher and former president Jimmy Carter.

The 30-something musician caught Hollywood's attention when her participation in the soundtrack for the "Last Emperor" helped the score garner an Oscar.

Though the score for "Crouching Tiger" was originally written by Tan Dun with the erhu in mind, Han is not on the score. The filmmakers decided to go with Yo-Yo Ma playing a cello instead.

However, her television and film credits do include performances in the "Little Mermaid," "The Joy Luck Club," "Hercules" and the documentary "Pavarotti in China."

"I feel very pleased to be living in this world, especially after coming to America [because] there's lots of love I received from the audience, from the people, from the composers, from the musicians," Han said.

She also enjoys her freedom.

When Han left China, she abandoned a more restricted musical upbringing where music was supposed to be a certain way. Since the age of six, when she first learned to play the erhu following in her father's footsteps, Han had always adhered to the instruction of a teacher. She inserted vibratos only when her teacher said she should. She played everything the "correct" volume.

But moving to America and learning American techniques gave her a musical freedom. In fact, Han has even combined the erhu with genres including jazz and new age.

"Now I even play a little bit more longer than the bar the composer wrote," Han said. "I just follow my mood and my feeling. Just trying to show the love I can show."

And she has a lot of it. Enough to spare.

"Especially in America, people work so hard, they have not enough time to have the chance to think deeply [about] what they want," Han said. "The feeling that what I wanted to tell people is that how much love there is in this world. There's much more love than they think."

Her message seems to be getting out. Rose Cheung, a Chinese-American board member of Bravi 9, a nonprofit group that promotes cross-cultural understanding through the arts, bestows Han a comparison to Yo-Yo Ma.

"When he plays cello, you can see his emotion," said the Irvine resident, whose group is a sponsor of the "Crouching Tiger" concert. "Same thing with Karen. You could tell. She's truly emotionally involved and the audience can feel that directly."

For Han, this means her mission is accomplished.

"Music is [an] instrument," she said. "To feel deeper, to feel more, to be more sensitive to each other."


WHAT: Karen Han will perform

WHEN: 7 p.m. Tuesday at Borders Books, Music & Cafe; 8 p.m. Oct. 19 and 20 and 3 p.m. Oct. 21 at the Irvine Barclay Theatre

WHERE: Borders, 3333 Bear St., Costa Mesa. Irvine Barclay Theatre, 4242 Campus Drive, Irvine

COST: Borders -- free; Barclay -- $38 or $33

CALL: (949) 553-2422

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