Interview: Composer Erhei Liang opens a musical door to an intersection of Chinese and Western cultures


Harpist Andrew Chan is part of Sunday’s opening concert of the 2012 Chinese-Canadian Performing Arts Festival at the Glenn Gould Studio.

Whether we consciously admit it or not, Toronto is a cultural mosaic where most immigrants cling to their little squares rather than freely crossing the grout lines. It is only as children and grandchildren begin to mix freely that intersections begin to happen.

One person with a particularly broad view of this in Toronto’s substantial Chinese community is composer, conductor and teacher Erhei Liang, who has called the city home since 1991. He is head of the Chinese Artist Society of Toronto and the Toronto Chinese Piano and String Teachers Association. At the same time, he is also an associate composer of the Canadian Music Centre.

To explore all possible musical intersections between Over There and Over Here, Liang has organized the 10-concert 2012 Chinese-Canadian Performing Arts Festival. The first event takes place at the Glenn Gould Studio on Sunday evening.

These concerts are an invitation to people from any community to sample Chinese art music — both national and expatriate.

The programme opens with Liang’s Concert Overture to the first Chinese opera to be translated and performed in the West: Wang Gui and Li Xiang Xiang. The opera was written in 1950 by his father, Hanguang Liang, who died in 1989.

Solo pieces, accompanied by an orchestra made up of members of the Chinese Artist Society of Toronto and conducted by Liang and violinist Alec Hou, will be performed by soprano Yi-ping Chao, flautists Chun-jie Wang and Samantha Chang, and harpist Andrew Chan.

Pianist Langning Liu will offer Chopin’s Barcarolle, Op. 60, and joins the orchestra in the bombastic fourth movement of the Yellow River Concerto, which bristles with Maoist anthems.

The 30-year gestation of the four-movement Yellow River Concerto we know today is a committee-written effort that was championed by Madame Mao.

In case you need a taste of that final movement, here is Lang Lang performing it (appropriately dressed in red and playing a matching piano) in the cultural lead-up to the 2008 Beijing Olympics:

“It came out of a certain political climate,” says Liang, circumspectly.

I remind him of what sort of critical mockery the pastiche-y piece has been subjected to in the West over the past four decades.

“Yes, the music is looking backwards,” Liang admits, “but it is still a contribution to the development of Chinese music. It is well-balanced with Chinese elements and Western techniques.”

Erhei Liang

Liang also points out that this was the only large-scale piece of art music allowed to be performed during the Cultural Revolution, a time when academics, artists and anyone capable of critical thinking were ordered to put down their pens, brushes and instruments, were then rounded up and sent to be reeducation b working as farmhands.

The Liangs — “a family of artists and musicians,” says the composer — were no exception.

Liang was in high school at the time. He and his sister were sent off in one direction, his parents were deported to a “reform camp.”

“We were only allowed 5 metres distance to say goodbye to our parents,” the composer remembers. The teenagers spent four-and-a-half years in the countryside.

“When the universities were reopened, I applied and took the examinations,” Liang recalls. Others couldn’t turn to their parents, because they were gone, but Liang’s parents had survived and were back at home, so he asked his father for advice.

“He told me to study music,” Liang says, matter-of-factly, so he joined the first 10 music students at the reopened university conservatory in Shanghai. “The whole school had less than 100 students,” he recalls.

“There were such strong bonds in this group. We kept trying to persuade the teachers to teach us more,” he chuckles. He says it was a tough balancing job for faculty, because modern art music was still banned. “They had to balance political imperatives with learning.”

The practical solution was for the teachers to do all they could and provide extra lessons, as long as their students swore to not tell anyone.

Liang and his peers grew up thirsting for new musical adventures. But in the intervening generation, China’s explosive economic growth and love of Western consumer goods and art has forced the composer to shift perspectives. He now worries that China’s traditional and folk musics are under severe threat.

He was in China last month, and has come back with a determination that history not get swallowed up by modernization.

“The government no longer supports folk arts sufficiently,” Liang explains. “So the artists are left to fend for themselves. This is not a good situation because the quick economic development in China places value on art based on its market value.”

He worries that some traditional arts may not survive the next 10 to 20 years. “Overseas Chinese descendants will have to work on projects to connect the recent with the past in order to ensure their survival in the next generation.”

Liang points out that a person can travel to Vienna to hear orchestras playing a wide range of music and to see people living in houses that are hundreds of years old. “The culture is so well maintained,” he states.

He believes China must do the same, particularly by ensuring that youngsters are exposed to older artforms in concert and in the classroom. “Even during the civil war in the 1940s and ’50s, people were suffering but still found a way to carry on,” he says, referring to the irony that good times might actually be worse for Chinese culture than civil strife and Mao’s Cultural Revolution.

The secret is education, he believes. “Sooner or later, if you learn it, you use it.”

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For details and tickets regarding Sunday’s concert, click here.

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