Beyond the Notes, Episode #2:  The Orchid Pavilion

Beyond the Notes, Episode #2: The Orchid Pavilion

Hello! You’re listening to episode number two
of Beyond the Notes, where we explore the music of Shen Yun Performing Arts, the world’s premier classical Chinese dance
and music company. I’m your host, Leeshai Lemish. Today we look at a piece
from Shen Yun Symphony Orchestra’s 2016 season, Poets of the Orchid Pavilion. Composed by Jing Xian, it is a celebration of the traditional Chinese ideal
of the gentleman. In ancient China, being a gentleman wasn’t just about
being well-mannered and well-dressed, it also meant being a scholar and mastering a range of arts. But you may be wondering, who were these gentlemen,
the poets of the Orchid Pavilion? And why were they so significant? So before we get into the music,
let’s don our scholarly robes and find out. The name Orchid Pavilion refers to Lan Ting Xu, a masterpiece of Chinese poetry and calligraphy. Written by the ‘Sage of Calligraphy’ Wang Xizhi
in the fourth century Jin Dynasty, the work came about as the result
of an ancient Chinese drinking game— qu shui liu shang or  “winding stream party.”  Here’s how the story goes: It was a perfect afternoon in the spring of 353. Wang had invited some of the leading scholars of the day
to an impromptu celebration of spring beside the waters of the Orchid Pavilion. Servants sent floating cups of wine downstream; whenever the cup stopped drifting, the guest nearest to it
had to compose a poem on the spot— or drink three cups as a penalty. In the end, 26 of the guests composed a total of 37 poems, inspiring Wang to commemorate this delightful event. Still tipsy from the wine, he put his brush to paper, and composed what would become
one of the most enduring treasures of Chinese literature— the Preface to Poems Composed at the Orchid Pavilion. Written in elegant cursive, it is not only a masterpiece of calligraphy, but also a beautiful narrative depiction of nature
and contemplation of life. (quote) “The sky that day was luminous, and the air was clear; a gentle breeze blew softly around us. Above us, we looked on the immensity of the universe; then lowering our eyes,
we saw nature’s infinite array.” (end quote) The story of Wang Xizhi
and the Orchid Pavilion Gathering characterizes the spirit and artistry
of the ancient Chinese scholar. (quote) “Let your sights soar and set your mind free,”
he wrote. But writing prose was only one of the ‘Four Arts’
of the ancient Chinese scholar: qin, qi, shu, hua. Qin is the introspective, contemplative playing of the zither; qi, the ancient strategy game commonly known as ‘Go’; shu, the meditative art of calligraphy; and hua, traditional Chinese painting. Music, Go, calligraphy, and painting— not bad for a lifetime of study, right? Confucian scholars believed that through these arts, students would grasp the essence of ethics and morality to become true ‘scholar-gentleman,’ or junzi. Through self-refinement,
they could then improve society by leading a virtuous life. A good deal of Chinese music has titles that paint pictures
of nature and its relationship with humankind: “High Mountains and Flowing Water,” or “Still Lake Under the Autumn Moon.” In Poets of the Orchid Pavilion,
the opening passage points to this idea: string harmonics set the backdrop of a crisp morning, with fleeting trills echoing bamboo flutes and the chirping birds of a verdant forest. After the pipa’s harmonics,
we have a falling motif that’s repeated throughout the piece. These recall the ancient scholars’ zither, or guqin. Scholars played it along with the xiao,
a vertical bamboo flute, to reflect their inner worlds. This sound is depicted here in the low registers
of the clarinet and flute. It’s interesting to note
how Chinese calligraphy resembles Chinese music. Both art forms emphasize the use of rhythm and dynamics. Calligraphy is like music without sound. The strokes can be light or firm, round or square, formed slowly or quickly. Listen to this melody again,
now played by the Chinese erhu, and imagine the movement of brushstrokes
gliding across the page. In this tutti section, the poets start composing. Nature, life, and Daoist philosophy
about existence and nonexistence comprise the most popular topics
of the Poems from the Orchid Pavilion. The main theme of this piece appears again,
this time in the violins. The flowing melody reflects the spirit
of ancient Daoist scholars: carefree and unburdened by worldy affairs. This next section is a call and response
between the pipa and woodwinds. In a form of ancient improv games, Chinese scholars would have competitions
in which one would recite the first line of a poem, and the opponent would immediately compose the next,
wittier verse. Soon, the guqin reappears,
this time with pipa paired with bassoon. The composer, herself a pipa player, makes full use of pipa technique and lower strings to recall the slides, harmonics,
and stylish vibrato of the guqin. Finally, the orchestra erupts with sound like scholars wrapped in spirited debate. In ancient China, to be a gentleman and a scholar, meant also being a poet,
a musician, a philosopher, strategist, and artist. Above all, it meant developing the virtuous bearing
of a true gentleman, a junzi, and leaving a legacy for the ages. As Wang wrote in the Preface 
some sixteen hundred years ago: (quote) “Future generations will look back upon us, just as we look upon our past.”
(end quote) I’m Leeshai, thank you for listening. We’ll see you in another episode of Beyond the Notes. To learn more about Shen Yun Symphony Orchestra,
please visit our website. The Shen Yun Symphony Orchestra CD
is available on iTunes and the Shen Yun Shop.  Shen Yun Symphony Orchestra’s
international concert tour includes Carnegie Hall in New York, Boston Symphony Hall, as well as Chicago, Washington, Toronto, and cities in Asia every year. To learn more, visit

1 thought on “Beyond the Notes, Episode #2: The Orchid Pavilion

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *