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Attractive Intricacies from China’s Two Classic Instruments


At a noon musical offering in King’s Chapel, Yun Thwaits and Hongwei Gao played an altogether remarkable duet on the pipa and erhu respectively. Adapted from Beijing opera, Deep Night was ever so thrilling. In the capable hands of Gao, the smaller, high-pitched version of the erhu, or Chinese violin called a Beijing opera erhu, delivered melodic twists as idiomatically as did the pipa, or Chinese lute, in Thwaits’ hands. At times, both punctuated the often rapidly moving phrases in somewhat synchronized fashion, but more often each brought his and her own instrument’s voice into a heterophony full of attractive intricacies.

Declarative sections alternated with virtuosic interplay. The ending revved up for the final knock-out punch to a brief but engaging encounter with Chinese music which took place Tuesday afternoon, June 22. It was full steam ahead on only two Chinese instruments—one of them just a half-sized version. Amazingly, throughout their 30-minute program, Thwaits’ pipa and Gao’s erhu sounded larger than life in King’s Chapel, there being a presence even in the softest plucked string and the slightest wisp of sound from the bowed string.

Particularly curious, of the seven pieces played, most, whether fast or slow, ended on a gentle note, what one might interpret as a concluding gesture of politeness, or better, graciousness. And not that there wasn’t emotion in their playing, especially that from Gao whose sensitive and imaginative sphere of sounds continually revolved, a nasal sound here, a subtle trill there, a nuanced slide from out of nowhere.

You might be wondering about being able to follow a musical language such as that from China. This little gem of a concert at midday was anything but difficult. Gao led off with The Grapes Are Ripe, originally a Xinjiang folksong, in which could be heard “the joy of the farmers as they harvest the ripe grapes.” It approached sounding a little reminiscent of blue grass fiddling. Thwaits then took over with The Night of the Touch Festival, a pipa solo piece meant to express “the happiness of the villagers dancing to welcome the coming of spring.”  Their dance appeared in a well-marked 4/4 time that was simple, straightforward and easy to follow.

Gao’s and Thwaits’ continued alternation of solos kept the mind’s ears fresh for unlabored listening—and understanding. Unwanted listening guidance came from recorded accompaniments to all of Hongwei Gao’s three solos, one of them being Yesterday Once More. Yes, the Carpenter’s hit pop song. Despite the mechanical yet gooey canned orchestral background, I fell for the opening phrases of this quintessential American song coming out of one of China’s own classic instruments. But fatigue set in quickly. This did not work even in the short run (as much as I had hoped it would). Sameness won out. (Was it the power of the machine?)

For some reason, slow moving or quiet music, be it Chinese or not, can mystify, and that was what happened in another pipa solo, this one describing “the stillness of the moon.” Here, Yun Thwaits elegantly shaped this ancient melody over its minimal background of strategically placed notes. And again, she created contrast after contrast through various pipa techniques.

Not a mystery is what “pipa” simply means. The first syllable stands for forward plucking and the second syllable for backward plucking. It’s not unlike thinking about the pianoforte or as it would be translated, the “soft-loud.”

I understand that Yun Thwaits has been appearing at King’s Chapel every June for quite a few years, each time bringing a guest performer. I would encourage Bostonians and tourists alike to relax during the lunch hour next year for what should be another sojourn worth taking in

David Patterson, Professor of Music and former Chairman of the Performing Arts Department at UMass Boston, was recipient of a Fulbright Scholar Award and the Chancellor’s Distinction in  Teaching Award. He studied with Nadia Boulanger and Olivier  Messiaen in Paris and holds a PhD from Harvard University.His website is

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