Merit system with strings attached

As huqin principal of the Hong Kong Chinese Orchestra, Zhang Chongxue wants to bring the bowed instrumentsto the world, writesOliver Chou

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 01 September, 2013, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 01 September, 2013, 9:30am

S anshi erli, or standing firm at 30, is an old Chinese saying for those reaching the 30-year mark. For Zhang Chongxue, this is literally true.

As the recently appointed huqin principal of the Hong Kong Chinese Orchestra, Zhang - who turns 30 in November - will stand and tune the 85-member ensemble like the concertmaster of a western orchestra when the new concert season opens on September 13.

"I had never dreamed of assuming the position when I joined the orchestra seven years ago. Even the appointment in 2006 was a surprise," says the Shanghai native.

"I always thought my seven years of service would get me a Hong Kong identity card. But I have ended up getting something much bigger than permanent residency," she says, laughing.

Huqin is the generic term for Chinese two-stringed bowed instruments. As huqin principal, Zhang will be in charge of the orchestra's three huqin sections: gaohu, erhu, and zhonghu, comprising 28 players.

"These are Chinese fiddles of different pitches, the gaohu having the highest pitch, while the zhonghu is viola-equivalent," says Zhang, who won the second prize in the erhu category at the 2008 Shanghai Spring International Music Festival. "I will be leading musicians from all three groups in bowing, timbre, and address requests guest conductors might have for the strings."

The latest appointment is her third success at the orchestra after winning an erhu position against stiff competition in 2006, and becoming acting principal erhu four years later.

"For me to get the top position in just seven years in such a prestigious group is something impossible in other orchestras, where it might take 20 years or more. Here at the Hong Kong Chinese Orchestra, merit, not seniority, counts. It is fair and open to all, and that's what attracts me to Hong Kong for my career since my graduation at the Shanghai Conservatory," she says.

Huqin principal is a new position that aims at perfecting sonority and unison of the strings. This is especially necessary with the advent of the new eco-huqin designed by the orchestra to replace python skin with polyester membrane, which has boosted the sound significantly. The new erhu's soundbox was also to be changed from the original hexagon into a round shape but was retained at Zhang's insistence.

The reform began in 2005 and was completed in 2009.

Zhang was a staunch advocate of the redesign, and proved her point at a performance in Guangzhou with the provincial orchestra. "In summer 2012, I was a soloist there along with a gehu [a cello-like instrument] colleague. The orchestra musicians were attracted by the unique shape of the gehu and gathered around it. But a night of rain changed that," she recalls. "When I played my eco-erhu the next morning it sounded as bright as ever, whereas the traditional erhus were muffled by the humidity. Everyone marvelled and I became the centre of attention."

Zhang says she is very comfortable with the change and can switch between the traditional and new huqins with ease, although she has kept a python-skin erhu from 1997 for sentimental reasons.

Another thing Zhang has picked up in Hong Kong is the Cantonese style of gaohu performance. "I always believe it is important to learn the local style in order to be a part of the community so I took lessons from Yu Qiwei of the Hong Kong Academy for Performing Arts," she says.

"He taught me the Cantonese style which I had previously thought to be flat and narrow. In his hands, the gaohu sounded rich and resonant. It was the authentic South China style as he placed the fiddle between his legs, and not on top of them."

Zhang also learned the Chaozhou style of huqin, including the traditional yehu with its soundbox made out of a coconut shell. Her mastery of both instruments and styles shone during the six-part audition for the huqin principal position in front of an international panel. She performed on four types of huqin behind curtains, and wrote an essay on orchestra development. "I wrote about how to maximise the strength of the eco-huqin and the introduction of chamber music technique in orchestra training."

The most daunting part of the audition was facing the eight panellists, from the mainland, Taiwan, Singapore and Hong Kong. Noting her Cantonese style, Singapore's Pan Yaotian asked why she did not play more virtuosic pieces to impress the judges.

"My answer was, I live and work in Hong Kong and it is only natural for me to bring out the local tradition. Without tradition, my growth would be shallow and wouldn't go very far," she says.

Zhang's vision goes far beyond the city she calls her second home. "As a huqin player of the 21st century, I hope to carry on its tradition not just among the Chinese, but to music lovers worldwide so they get to know this wonderful instrument."

As the orchestra's chief of strings, Zhang is excited about the solo recitals to come, including in Shanghai. "On hearing about my appointment, my parents said to me: 'We didn't send our only child away for nothing'. I found that very moving."