Bel Canto Tackles Eastern Music

In particular, Chinese music, with guest instrumental trio, the Orchid Ensemble.

By - May 16th, 2016 02:52 pm
Orchid Ensemble - Lan Tung, Jonathan Bernard and Yu-Chen Wang. Photo from Orchid Ensemble website.

Orchid Ensemble – Lan Tung, Jonathan Bernard and Yu-Chen Wang. Photo from Orchid Ensemble website.

The Bel Canto Chorus plants its roots firmly in the Western classical choral tradition. So their final concert of the season on Wednesday marks a stark departure. “This is the first time we have done this kind of repertoire,” conductor Richard Hynson acknowledges. Although Eastern music developed very sophisticated rules for rhythm, tonal systems and song, there is no choral tradition in Chinese, Arabic, Persian and Indian music. So a concert called “Travels on the Silk Road” was bound to be a stretch for an a capella choral group like the Bel Canto.

Hyson was introduced several years ago to a music publisher, Earthlingswhich specialized in adapting world music to Western settings. Bel Canto selected a variety of songs adapted for chorus from Arabic (Syria, Iraq), Indian and Chinese traditions. Long before Marco Polo, active trade routes connected these cultures.  Sophisticated musical traditions developed that are quite different from those of the West. But nowadays,  Eastern music is being heard — and transformed — in the West. And western music has been embraced in the East. For example, Western choral groups frequently tour China.

Much of Wednesday’s concert features the Bel Canto alone. Hynson says the largest challenge has been to master the different languages – Farsi, Arabic, Cantonese and others. But musical tones are different as well. A work influenced by Far Eastern gamelan (tuned percussion) orchestras is based upon a note cluster that seems exotic to Western ears. Vocal trills incorporating more than a full whole step occur in Arabic selections. The result can be more authentic when individual soloists sing songs in the more traditional Eastern format.

Is the concert an exploration of ancient traditional music? More accurately, the program offers a 21st century Western perspective on musical sources long absent in the West – both a familiar and exotic exploration of Eastern traditions.

The evening explores more authoritative sounds with the participation of a guest instrumental trio, the Orchid Ensemble. The trio — Lan Tung (Taiwan/Canada) on the erhu (Chinese violin), Yu-Chen Wang (Taiwan/US) on the zheng (or gushing, a Chinese zither, and Jonathan Bernard (Canada) on percussion — blends ancient musical instruments and traditions from China and beyond. They have worked to bring traditional music to new audiences and to fuse contemporary and traditional music to develop new innovative musical genres. Even the guests will be offering a fusion of Eastern and Western influences.

The Orchid Ensemble will perform a separate set of instrumental works and accompany the Bel Canto for a set of largely Chinese folk songs adapted for chorus. The ensemble’s work may be previewed on their YouTube channel.

The Ensemble will remain in Milwaukee for a week in residency with the Milwaukee Symphony Orchestra‘s Arts in Community Education Program.

The concert will begin at 7:30 p.m., May 18 at the Milwaukee Theatre Rotunda, 500 W Kilbourn Avenue. The Rotunda should not be confused with the Milwaukee Theatre auditorium. The semi-circular Rotunda room offers a more intimate experience for about 300 guests. Tickets are available from $20-32. They may be purchased online or at the door.

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