Friday, October 19, 2001
A New Star for 'Crouching
Music: The erhu, an
ancient Chinese violin, takes its original place in the
movie's score during a world premiere concert at the Irvine
By CHRIS PASLES, Times
sounds sweeter and more personal than a violin? Many people
would say the erhu, a Chinese string instrument dating to the
mid-8th century that has been put to some very modern uses
Composer Tan Dun
had the instrument in mind when writing music for Ang Lee's
Academy Award-winning film, "Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon."
But the sound he imagined didn't make it to the screen. It was
transposed for a cello so that Yo-Yo Ma could play the part.
Now comes the fuller
realization of his original intention as he conducts the world
premiere performances of the "Crouching Tiger" Concerto today
through Sunday at the Irvine Barclay Theatre.
Karen Hwa-Chee Han will be
"The sound [of
the erhu] is like a woman's voice," Han said in a recent phone
interview from her home in West Los Angeles. "It's just like
talking, like a friend talks."
The instrument has two steel
(originally silk) strings and tuned a fifth apart. They run
from the top of the neck to a resonating box made of snakeskin
(most often python). There is no fingerboard.
Unlike a violin, the
instrument is played vertically, like a cello, as it rests on
the musician's thigh. The bow, originally made of bamboo, is
horsehair and cannot be removed from between the strings.
"When you play the outer
string, you use one technique," Han said. "When you play the
inner string, you use a different technique. Normally, we can
only play one string at a time because they are so far apart.
"We cannot play two notes
together, although I will try for this piece." Several bars
call for two strings sounding simultaneously as a special
effect. Dun has written a demanding piece for the instrument
because he knows its capabilities. He and Han studied at about
the same time at the Central Conservatory of Music in Beijing.
"I was in the middle school.
He was in the college," she said. "He knows how to play erhu.
He knows the technique and the style. His piece gives me lots
of challenges, which I love."
Han was born in a small town
in the Anhui province of China. Her father played the
instrument and, believing that an instrumentalist had a longer
professional life in music than a singer, insisted that she
learn it too. He forced her to practice.
"In the beginning, I was
mad. It upset me," she said. "I had to practice hard, every
day, two to three hours."
the age of 10, she was sent to study at the Central
"Once I got
into the professional school, I started to appreciate these
things. I was getting older and more mature. My instrument
became one of my friends. If I couldn't speak out, I could use
my instrument to express my feelings."
At times, she practiced
eight hours a day. "My hands hurt. Sometimes they got bloody.
But if you want something, really badly, you want to
meant sneaking in a few hours practice after 11 p.m. when the
school had turned off the electricity.
"I would just light a candle
and practice until 1 or 2 o'clock in the morning. Now I love
the music, I love the stage, I love performance."
But about the time she was
falling in love with traditional music, China was falling out
of love with it.
She was in
graduate school when China was just opening up to the West,
she said. Pop music and rock 'n' roll were everywhere, and
there was less interest in Chinese music.
"I felt quite hurt. Things I
worked so hard to learn weren't being appreciated anymore. But
I did get to visit the United States in 1985 on a
government-sponsored music tour of 15 cities. That gave me a
very good impression that American people would appreciate my
She moved to
Hollywood in 1988, making it her home and working in films and
television and on recording projects involving collaborations
with jazz artists and other musicians. She has not returned to
"Western people are
very open, accepting me as one of their own family," she said.
"That makes me feel very encouraged and also very happy. The
world is becoming closer."
* * * Karen
Hwa-Chee Han will play the first performances of Tan Dun's
"Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon" Concerto for Erhu and
Orchestra today and Saturday at 8 p.m. and Sunday at 3 p.m. at
the Irvine Barclay Theatre, 4242 Campus Drive. Dun will
conduct. The program also will include the West Coast premiere
of his "Concerto for Water Percussion and Orchestra" with
soloist David Cossin. $33 to $38. (949) 854-4646.
Copyright 2001 Los Angeles