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December 9, 2023

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Erhu virtuoso Ma Xiaohui touches a chord with UN and US audiences

ERHU virtuoso Ma Xiaohui walked into the United Nations headquarters on the day the UN Security Council held an emergency meeting due to the Gaza crisis, two days after the Palestinian-Israeli conflict broke out on October 7.

As a special event on her world tour, Ma was due to perform an erhu (a Chinese two-stringed instrument) concert for diplomats, journalists and other invited guests from a variety of backgrounds and different countries in the Delegates’ Room.

After the initial worry of any last-minute change to the concert, the anxious faces in the UN headquarters in New York that day reminded and reassured Ma of her goal for the tour.

“The world needs some warmth now, and music can serve as a bridge with its healing power,” Ma told Shanghai Daily after her return from the United States, the first stop on her world tour.

“I want to use the musical instrument in my hand to call for beauty, love and peace.”

Famous since the 1990s, Ma became chief erhu soloist of the Shanghai Chinese Orchestra shortly after graduating from the Shanghai Conservatory of Music. She was among the first contemporary performers to experiment with playing along with all kinds of Western instruments, and has played the erhu all over the world for more than 20 years.

“The erhu is a very sensitive instrument that creates a sound closest to the vibration of human vocal cords, making it easier to touch your heart and soul,” she said.

“That gives the instrument strong healing power.”

It is also an instrument frequently identified with the Chinese sound, and is sometimes introduced in the West as the Chinese violin.

The erhu is often selected by composers around the world when they need distinct Chinese elements in their music, like in soundtracks for movies such as “Kung Fu Panda” and “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon.”

Ma was the original performer who recorded the theme for the Oscar-winning soundtrack of “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon,” with Yo-Yo Ma on the cello. The combination of erhu and cello was a fresh sound when the movie came out in 2000.

It is also one of her favorites, since the erhu master and composer had been experimenting with performing erhu with different types of instruments since young.

Playing with the cello, she added, “is very romantic, like in the theme of ‘Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon,’ a kind of ever-yearning yet restrained romance.”

At the United Nations, she recreated that delicate sound with cellist Molly Aronson in “Butterfly Lovers,” a violin concerto based on a popular Yueju Opera play that came from a romantic folk tale.

The concerto became an instant success when it premiered in China in 1959, and has since become an iconic piece of Chinese musical innovation. Ma rearranged the concerto into a piece for erhu and cello.

“My favorite is playing with a symphony, for its complex texture and challenges,” she said. “Then there is the harp, with a lingering soft sound that embraces my erhu sound. Plus it is also very rare to perform with the harp.”

During her US tour, Ma performed “Shepherd Girl in the Tianshan Mountains” with the Middle Tennessee State University Symphony Orchestra, including a harpist, in Nashville.

The hauntingly beautiful piece evokes gorgeous scenarios and vibrant energy in the heavenly mountains through layers of rich sound from the symphony, highlighting that of the erhu and harp.

“I love performing with students,” Ma recalled. “It was their first time to do a concerto, not to mention performing with the erhu. They were all very diligent, curious and also excited.”

It also reminded Ma of her many performances abroad, where foreign audiences in general changed in the last 20 years or so from being unaware of the erhu to having heard of it, but not necessarily seen a live performance.

“We have come a long way to introduce this sound to foreign audiences, and there is still a long way to go,” she said.

“For me personally, it is a good way to explore the world, different cultures and also myself through music.”


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