An ancient language finds musical expression

Yannick Nezet Seguin and Harpist Elizabeth Hainen, onstage with the women of Nu Shu, Changsha in Hunan province. The Philadelphia Orchestra performs composer Tan Dun's "Nu Shu: The Secret Songs of Women" for Tan's hometown fans. (Jan Regan/The Philadelphia Orchestra)
Yannick Nezet Seguin and Harpist Elizabeth Hainen, onstage with the women of Nu Shu, Changsha in Hunan province. The Philadelphia Orchestra performs composer Tan Dun's "Nu Shu: The Secret Songs of Women" for Tan's hometown fans. (Jan Regan/The Philadelphia Orchestra)
Posted: May 29, 2014

CHANGSHA, China - The event status of the Philadelphia Orchestra's local premiere of Nu Shu: The Secret Songs of Women was so intense Tuesday, it was hard to tell how many people truly experienced the music.

It was a perfect media-frenzy storm: The Philadelphians are the first U.S. orchestra ever to play in this capital city of the Hunan province, the hometown of Nu Shu composer Tan Dun, who lived through the Cultural Revolution to become an Oscar-winning film-score composer for Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon.

His new piece is composed around a series of videos shot in a mountain village where there are women who still speak and write the centuries-old nu shu language, little documented and used almost exclusively among themselves. Six of the seven women - some elderly and nearly toothless, others young and luminously beautiful - came to the performance in traditional village garb.

Nu Shu is what composer Tan calls "a soul touch" between old and new, East and West, urban and folk cultures. But in China's camera-centric culture, ordinary listeners treated the performance of this placid, often meditative piece like a paparazzi event. News-media members had to be periodically pushed back to the prescribed boundaries inside the Hunan Grand Theatre during the performance. Latecomers arrived with small children in tow.

Yet emotions couldn't help but run high, especially when the real-life nu shu women bowed onstage with Elizabeth Hainen, the orchestra's principal harpist, who is the soloist in the piece. "I just get so moved when I'm standing next to them," she said. "I just love those ladies. They're such incredible people. Their language is like an exclusive club, but actually something much more meaningful than that. It's like a legion of honor, really."

Beauty, wisdom, resistance, and imagination are among the key concepts in what is possibly the only gender-specific language on Earth. It is not just a variation on local dialects, but also a writing system created in the 13th century, when local women were sex-segregated and denied education, and needed language to carry out everyday tasks, maintain their spiritual lives, and communicate with each other.

The piece taps into an idea that's very much in the air - the publicly lamented loss of nature and traditional ways amid rampant industrialization. The night before, when members of the orchestra played alongside the Shanghai City Symphony, its venerable music director, Cao Peng, introduced Beethoven's Symphony No. 6 ("Pastoral") with an impassioned protest of his country's environmental depredations.

Similarly, nu shu women no longer keep their language secret. "It's the iconic symbol of our own culture," said Liu Zhong Hua, who facilitated Tan's research in Jiangyong County, where the videos were shot. "Such spirit should be shared and acknowledged by women all over the world, not only in China."

The youngest nu shu woman, Hu Xin, 26, will break with tradition if necessary: Though the language is passed from mother to daughter, she won't let it end if her marriage is daughterless: "If I have a boy, I will have to teach it to the daughters of my relatives."

It's hard to know how much sank in at the homecoming performance of Nu Shu: The Secret Songs of Women. Composer, orchestra, and harpist were loudly applauded, and the nu shu women were mobbed at intermission. "I feel very good within myself," said Hu. But Tan's far-reaching, Stravinsky-tinged score may have been more fully perceived by fall's Philadelphia audiences.

Beyond Beijing and Shanghai, awareness of Western classical music isn't especially high. And in this, China's 18th-largest city, with a population roughly the size of New York City's, the transition to modern China appears to be particularly haphazard.

What purports to be the highest skyscraper in the world is under construction here. The Hunan Broadcasting System is a trendsetter. In fact, the afternoon before Tuesday's concert, Tan and Hainen were feted in a sleek state-of-the-art TV studio for the popular show Day Day Up, performing excerpts with the videos seen on a vivid LED screen, framed by a set that resembled the Hollywood Bowl in pulsating red. An excerpt from a Tan opera was adapted and performed by a local pop singer, who navigated the stage with the assurance of Madonna.

But the concert's venue, the Hunan Grand Theatre, is a musty, grimy, Mao-era relic. "Appreciate elegant art" reads the ironic inscription on the balcony, "enjoy elegant life." Minutes before the doors opened, the orchestra was moving its chairs closer to the edge of the stage to improve acoustics. The audience seemed not to know when to applaud.

So it goes with classical-music spadework - a Philadelphia specialty here.

Earlier in the day, seven bass players from the Hunan Symphony Orchestra were expected for a sectional rehearsal with Philadelphia's assistant principal bassist, Joseph Conyers. Only one arrived. Yet the spirited hour they spent was rewarding for both.

"We never learn orchestral excerpts. In China, we learn solo repertoire," said Jin Yang Huang, 27, who attended Beijing's Central Conservatory. However, jobs are with orchestras, not in solo concerts, so Conyers showed him how to give his sound a solid core.

"We had a genuine connection. We made some progress," Conyers said. "But when you see a student for a limited amount of time, if I can leave any type of impression, change the trajectory of their thought just a little bit, I've played my part. I wish I could do this for every kid on the planet."

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