Xiaojun Huo’s fingers fly quickly over the neck of the erhu, an instrument that stretches back more than 1,000 years to the Tang Dynasty in China.
There is concentration, effort and musical passion in those well-trained nimble and graceful fingers. She is the chief erhu soloist of the China Opera and Dance Drama House and played Friday at Van Meter Hall at Western Kentucky University.
Born in Tianjin, China, in 1971, Huo attended the China Conservatory of Music from 1990 to 1994, earning a bachelor’s degree. Two years later, she was rated “One of the Top Ten” by the Chinese Ministry of Culture.
By 1999, Huo was awarded the “Prize of Excellent Performance” in a competition organized by the China Ministry of Culture for the celebration of the 50th anniversary of the foundation of the People’s Republic of China.
She has toured in Sweden, Turkey, Germany, Belgium and Finland and played in 2002 in the Sydney Opera House as a soloist.
The sound comes from a box at the base. The box is made of snakeskin. Erhus are made of red sandalwood, redwood and blackwood. The bridge on which her fingers fly is made of pine and maple. The bow stick is made of red bamboo and waterwood, and the bow hair is composed of horse hair.
The instrument starts with two strings – the inner one a “D” tone and the second an “A” tone, which is a fifth on the musical scale higher. Lui Tianhua, considered the master of Chinese folk music, was born in 1895. During his 37 years of life composed only 10 solo pieces for the erhu.
Huo said mastery of those Tianhua pieces gives a musician insight into the strength and power of the instrument.
For example, a piece that translates to “lovely night” in English from Chinese was written by Tianhua in 1928 when he was attending a spring festival with friends and family.
“It imitates a bird’s singing,” Huo said through a translator. “She said when she learned this piece, the teacher told them to go to the park and hear the birds singing,” the translator related.
In another piece that brings to mind the upcoming Kentucky Derby – written by Huang Haihuan, a contemporary Chinese song where the title translates to “horse racing” in English – Huo’s bow and fingers combine to coax out of the erhu the sounds of stallions neighing in anticipation of a big race. The song was written by Haihuan to describe the picture of Mongolia’s traditional festival, Namuda.
“You can feel the horse running in the wind,” noted Wei Ping Pan, assistant to the president at WKU and the Sumpter Professor of Chemistry. Pan has accompanied many WKU delegations to China and is arranging four more this summer, including one by WKU President Gary Ransdell. He offered comment and insight during the Bowling Green interview with Huo.
Yet Huo said her version is “harder and faster than the ordinary one.” She said it shows the skills of the performer. When it comes to playing the erhu, Huo is one of the best in China and favored by a Japanese audience, which is familiar with a solo erhu album “well acclaimed by Japanese audiences,” according to Betty Sheng-Huei Yu, associate director of the Confucius Institute at WKU.
Huo has played the two-stringed instrument since age 8, when she was a second-grader, she said. The Beijing artist ended a U.S. tour Friday evening with a performance with The Symphony at WKU, following prior performances last week at Middle Tennessee State University and the University of Tennessee in Knoxville. She then returned to Beijing, packing in a shopping trip to Opry Mills prior to the connections home.
“The tour has been good,” she said. “The audiences here have liked it very much. They have been very warm-hearted and passionate,” she said. “The (WKU) students played very well.”
Huo’s practice regime is five to six hours a day, practices she squeezes in between work and family obligations. She said she wants to come back to Kentucky again.
“She hopes the students and everyone can love Chinese music through the erhu,” the translator said.