"That's good," he says when he signals the players to stop, then begins to fix everything they did wrong. "Not pa pa pa pa. More smooth, more legato." He sings the melody. "Remember, every piece of Chinese music has a story behind it. The title of this piece translates as 'Weeping River of Sorrow.'"
Cai is preparing the orchestra for the 2008 Stanford Pan-Asian Music Festival, titled "China on Stage." During the two-week festival, which begins this Sunday, visiting dancers, opera singers, and instrumental soloists — including some of the best-known artists in China today — perform a mix of traditional and contemporary Chinese music. Stanford musicians will join with many of the visiting artists on stage.
This year's festival is the fourth. When he organized the first Pan-Asian Festival in 2005, Cai was seeking to introduce Asian music to American audiences, and chose the diverse Bay Area as a home. The event received an "overwhelming response," he said, which "gave me confidence that it could take deeper roots at Stanford."
Subsequent festivals have focused on specific aspects of Asian music — either regions (India, Pakistan, and other south Asian countries in 2006) or artistic traditions (Asian drumming in 2007). This year, with the Beijing Olympics approaching and China taking an increasingly prominent role on the world stage, Cai felt the time was right to focus on China.
Given that China has a population of more than 1.3 billion people and a recorded history dating back roughly 3,500 years, it's easy to understand that the term "Chinese music" encompasses a far greater range than those two words can convey. In planning the festival, Cai has made a conscious effort to represent the breadth of Chinese music, from traditional to modern.
"We wanted the festival to be inclusive," he said. "It's not just classical; we also have rock star Cui Jian."
That name may not mean much to most Americans, but in China — especially among the generation who were students during the Tiananmen Square protests, for whom his song "Nothing to My Name" was something of an anthem — Cui Jian has the status of rock legend. Cai describes a recent concert in Beijing in which a 10,000-seat coliseum was packed with Cui Jian's fans: "Everyone could sing along. They know all his songs."
Cui Jian is set to perform at Stanford on May 4. At the far end of the musical spectrum from the rock star, representing sacred music with roots in the 7th-century Tang Dynasty, a group of Buddhist monks and nuns from rural southern China will perform ceremonial music from the Xianghua ritual tradition on May 3. Cai said the group has "never before performed outside their village."
Most of the festival's music, though, falls somewhere between the two extremes. The Stanford Philharmonia and a variety of guest soloists will play a number of Chinese instrumental classics on April 25. The visiting Jiaotong University Chorus will focus on traditional folk songs on May 1.
Also on display is music arising from the interplay of East and West. Take, for instance, the festival's opening event, a modern kunqu opera entitled "Butterfly Dream." The opera's plot is based on the writings of Taoist philosopher Zhuangzi; its title is taken from the famous parable in which Zhuangzi recounts awaking from a dream to ask if he is a philosopher who has dreamt of being a butterfly or a butterfly that now dreams of being a philosopher. The subject matter and the kunqu form could hardly be more classically Chinese, but the score, by contemporary Chinese composer Jia Daqun, combines traditional Chinese elements with western instruments and modern orchestral techniques.
Other notable East-meets-West events on the festival schedule are the Jin Xing Dance Theatre performances on April 26 and 27. The company is led by choreographer Jin Xing, a former colonel in the People's Army who in the mid-1990s became the first male-to-female transsexual to be formally recognized by the Chinese government. The group will perform three acclaimed pieces from its repertoire, accompanied by the Stanford Symphony Orchestra and Symphonic Chorus, and the Palo Alto-based Cantabile Youth Singers.
One of these pieces is set to what Jin Xing describes as "an esteemed masterpiece of Chinese music," while the others are danced to western compositions — most notably, Carl Orff's "Carmina Burana."
Orff viewed this most famous of all his works as a "scenic cantata" to be performed with choreography and visual design elements, though it is now typically done in concert settings by orchestra and chorus alone. Jin Xing's pageant-like staging of the piece restores the visual/kinesthetic element. Her bold choreography is drawn "purely from the music, not from the Latin text," she said. "The music itself is very powerful."
While Jin Xing's company has toured extensively in Europe, the Pan-Asian Music Festival will mark its North American debut. Of the 13 dancers and eight technicians that she is bringing to Stanford, she estimates that 90 percent have never visited the United States before. While Jin Xing herself trained and toured in the U.S. in the 1980s, this will be her first time back since 1991. "I always said that if I go back to the States, I have to go back with my dance company."
The festival will be the first U.S. visit for many of the participating artists. "Many of these Chinese artists are excited," Cai said, "because this is a platform to play for everyone, not just the Chinese community."
Several of those artists will also participate in the symposium series that runs in conjunction with the festival. To help audiences understand the music in the context of Chinese society, Cai has organized free lectures, demonstrations and film screenings to complement the performance series. They include a screening of the Sylvia Levey film "Colonel Jin Xing: A Unique Destiny" on April 23; Jin Xing is also scheduled to speak.
Cai hopes the symposium events will enrich people's experience and appreciation of the music, and of some of the positive ways in which western and Chinese culture intersect.
The two cultures will also meet more directly in June, when Cai travels to Beijing with the Stanford Symphony Orchestra, Stanford Symphonic Chorus, and Stanford Taiko. The groups will perform "Carmina Burana" and other works.
"When you look at different cultures through the arts," Cai said, "you see connections. When you look at different cultures through politics, you only can see conflicts."
What: "China on Stage," the fourth annual Stanford Pan-Asian Music Festival, with performances, lectures and films. Shows include: the opera "Butterfly Dream" on April 20; Jin Xing Dance Theatre with local musicians on April 26 and 27; an April 29 online concert with musicians in Stanford and Beijing playing together via webcast; and rocker Cui Jian on May 4.
Where: Various Stanford University venues
When: April 20 through May 4
Cost: Concert events range from $10 to $50, with some discounts. Lectures and films are free.
Info: For a full schedule and ticketing, go to http://panasianmusicfestival.stanford.edu , or call 650-725-ARTS.
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