It wasn't just the language barrier though that was part of the problem. Very soon into the Closing Concert of the Princeton Chinese Music Festival at Carnegie Hall, it became apparent that the printed program was a jumble. I found it strange that the program content for such an event was primarily in Chinese, but was willing to accept the fact that a predominantly Chinese and Chinese-American audience would benefit for a Chinese program. I also understood that "Princeton" didn't necessarily mean Princeton University but the Princeton University Chinese Music Ensemble was listed as one of the featured performers and a co-presenter with collaboration from the Central Conservatory of Music (not specifically Beijing or Shanghai) and the China Conservatory of Music (again no specific location). The program did indeed start off with what appeared to be the featured student works - winners of a competition - performed ably by the youngest students of the evening, first a large group of 8 to 10 year olds on the guzheng followed by a mixed ensemble of both Chinese and Western instruments. After that presumably the Princeton University Ensemble performed although given the jumbled nature of the rest of the program it was difficult to ascertain if, when, and who this ensemble actually was. The title of their piece was importantly identified as "Capriccio Taiwan." Translations of program notes were provided for some titles but not for all, and titles and composers for other pieces were not transliterated. Anglicized performers' names were given however, and this and the number of performers involved were often the biggest clues as to which piece was being performed.

All this to describe a dilemma that didn't necessarily detract from enjoying the concert - at least not in my case. I was aware that several selections represented a highly politicized interpretation of traditional Chinese music - with compositions for 4, 6, and as many as 10 guzheng - like 'chamber orchestras' of guzheng - or the three pieces for zheng and piano (possibly orchestra reductions). These clearly represent attempts at Westernizing music and instruments that were traditionally performed solo and without any harmonization. However, i was more struck by the variety of styles exhibited in the pieces and undoubtedly extended playing techniques developed by players and composers over time. Who's to say that these instruments and the repertoire can't develop beyond a traditional context even if the original impetus came from reform politics and a desire to Westernize? And in fact, one assessment on my part was quickly dispelled. During a piece for erhu quartet, very much composed like a string quartet, and which seemed to me to be Dvorak, Lalo, and Sarasate all rolled into one, I mused at one point "Oh that melody has to be straight from Hunga... Oh wait everyone seems to recognize this melody. So much for that." 

I was proud that my initial inquiry into the program jumble by consulting a neighbor confirmed my suspicion that the erhu solo with the rapid galloping rhythms and even quartal double stops was he one portraying "Mongolian Wind" not "clouds over ocean as in a dream." And there were several erhu solos (not just Westernized ensembles) though it's difficult to say which were older, more traditional tunes and which may actually be new compositions. Which brings us back to the Mystery. I'll admit even if the Princeton ensemble performance is only tangential to the entire program, I would expect anything associated with an Ivy League institution, or purported to represent an Ivy League institution, would have clear and complete program information. Someone with an extreme case of paranoia possibly held over from the Cold War might even say the jumbled program was a tactic to obfuscate information, hide identities, or Worse, maybe even communicate in Code!! Well, what to do about it? Who might be Willing & Able to serve the ensemble, say, translate titles and bios, provide more complete program notes. I would imagine someone who has learned some Chinese living/studying abroad, maybe even spent some time playing the zheng...  A mystery indeed...

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