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French Horn Meets Chinese Traditions

Vienna musician tours with Chinese New Year Global Spectacular.

The French horn may not be a traditional Chinese instrument, but Vienna resident Yen-Ling Chiu intends to use it for something she said is more Chinese than anything happening in China today.

Chiu is on tour with New Tang Dynasty TV's Chinese New Year Global Spectacular, a song, music and dance extravaganza that will come to Washington, D.C. for performances at the GW Lisner Auditorium this Friday and Saturday. In an e-mail from Toronto, where she was preparing for a show, Chiu said she auditioned for the orchestra in December of 2005 because "I knew this show's performances will reflect traditional Chinese culture, which is profound. I don't like the modern ones, which are often very shallow and don't have deep meaning."

Dong Xiang, the D.C. bureau chief for New Tang Dynasty, which is the world's largest independent, Chinese-language television station, said the station decided to begin producing a New Year's gala four years ago, based on one modern Chinese tradition and to fill the void left by the abandonment of older traditions.

In the last 30 years, he said, it has become customary in China to celebrate the new year by watching gala shows on television. However, he said, New Tang's show is "quite different" from what one would see in China, where the performances are based on the "Communist, atheist model." On the other hand, the ancient Chinese culture depicted in the Global Spectacular would "honor the gods and encourage kindness and the restraint of human desire," said Xiang. He said he could explain the show's popularity in two words: "Divine beauty — we believe this is the most important part of the show."

Jeff Chen, New Tang's sales and marketing director, noted that China's Tang Dynasty, for which the television station is named, is regarded as the peak of Chinese culture. He said it is the culture of this dynasty, which thrived from about 600 to 900 A.D., that the show tries to recreate. Chen said he felt modern Chinese culture has become enamored of materialism.

Following the Communist takeover in 1949, said Xiang, "the leaders did everything possible to sever the people from their culture." Hence, most Chinese born in the last 60 years have little firsthand knowledge of the country's older traditions.

Chiu is one of those. She was in high school in 1988, when she began playing the French horn for her high school in Taiwan. Of the New Year show she said, "The beauty and deep meaning of the traditional Chinese culture that the dances represent truly touched me. It made me discover a lot of things that I didn't know in Chinese culture."

One of the numbers in the show depicts a girl replacing her elderly father in the army, said Chiu, noting that this demonstrated the traditional Chinese values of loyalty and filial piety.

Xiang said this would be a story familiar to American and Chinese audiences alike, as it is a famous Chinese tale that became the basis for the Disney movie, "Mulan." He said the New Tang version adheres more closely to the traditional story and performs it in a ballet-style dance.

LAST YEAR'S PERFORMANCES of the Global Spectacular at New York City's Radio City Music Hall earned the show the No. 7 slot in Billboard Magazine for the month of February, and Chen said this year's show is bigger and better. The performances are different each year, he said, and this year the show has more performers — about 300 — and represents more cultures, including those of Tibet, Mongolia and Manchuria.

Most of the instruments in the orchestra, said Chiu, are of Western origin, while a few are Chinese. "When [the performance] needs to show the grand scenes, such as Buddha coming down to the Earth to save people or heroes joining wars, Western instruments such as my French horn play good roles," she said, adding that Chinese instruments work well for depicting "subtle sentimentality."

Xiang said one of the show's most impressive performances is a piece called "Ladies of the Manchu Court," a dance performed in elaborate costumes to royal, Manchu-style music. All of the show's costumes are "very authentic," he added, noting that their designs were based on historical drawings and descriptions.

The Chinese New Year is not until Feb. 18, but the Global Spectacular began its worldwide tour in December. Chen noted that the holiday spirit sets in long before the new year. The show will stop in 28 cities around the world. Of course, it will not be performed in China, said Xiang.

Chiu said she is performing in the shows in Philadelphia, Boston and New York, as well as those in Toronto and D.C. "In different cities, audiences are different and venues are different," she said. "There will be a lot of difficulties to overcome." However, she said, the orchestra members have done well with supporting each other and working as a team. The theater crew at the Beacon Theater in New York "told us we were the easiest group to deal with because we all helped each other," said Chiu.

She said she hoped Westerners, as well as Chinese, could learn from the show, as well as be entertained. Chiu said she was saddened to see "much violence and lust" in China's present culture. "People in the West may mistake those as Chinese culture because those are all that's available to them," she said.