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Iconic composer and conductor delivers a masterful performance

China Daily | Updated: 2023-11-09 10:47
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He Zhanhao, 90, leads the Hong Kong Chinese Orchestra for his signature piece, The Butterfly Lovers, on Oct 27.[Photo by Zhu Wei/For China Daily]

HONG KONG — As the final note of The Butterfly Lovers High-pitched Huqin Concerto delicately floated through the air like a graceful butterfly taking flight, 90-year-old He Zhanhao slowly lowered the conductor's baton.

The members of the Hong Kong Chinese Orchestra and the audience rose to their feet, a collective gesture of respect for the maestro. The theater erupted in thunderous applause and jubilant cheers, echoing through the space, a seemingly unending symphony of appreciation.

Strong as an oak, he stood tall on the conductor's podium. His commanding presence filled the air, his gestures exuding strength and purpose. And yet, throughout the entire performance, not once did his eyes glance at the sheet music. This is a magnum opus that had woven itself into the very fabric of He's artistic existence, an orchestral masterpiece he co-created at the tender age of 26.

The Butterfly Lovers is a legend centered around the tragic romance between Liang Shanbo and Zhu Yingtai, considered the Chinese equivalents of Romeo and Juliet. The eponymous composition weaves a tale of forbidden love, sacrifice and tragedy, much like Shakespeare's renowned play.

Why would people instantly fall in love with The Butterfly Lovers? The answer from the composer-conductor is that the classic is imbued with the essence of Chinese culture, deeply rooted in the vast expanse of China's folk traditions.

"China is brimming with folk songs and traditional operas that are not the work of any individual, but rather the heartfelt expressions of the common people," he says. "They sing about the emotions and experiences found in labor and love, infusing music with sentiment and life."

He went on to recall the composition of The Butterfly Lovers Violin Concerto as an example of tapping into one of China's rich traditions: Yueju Opera. It is a traditional opera originating from Zhejiang province, characterized by its melodic and lyrical style, elaborate costumes, and graceful movements.

Having grown up listening to Yueju Opera with his grandmother and later working with a Yueju Opera troupe for several years, He eventually found inspiration within the realm of the tradition itself.

He initially composed a quartet version of The Butterfly Lovers and later invited Chen Gang, a professor of composition, to join him in the process. Guided by their mentor, the two musicians merged elements of traditional Chinese suite music with the structure of Western sonatas, resulting in the successful creation of the violin concerto.

"When my classmates first heard it, they were all amazed and jokingly asked, 'Which concerto did you plagiarize this melody from?' And I replied, 'It's all from Yueju Opera!'"

In 2000, Radio Television Hong Kong organized a people's choice vote under the theme of "My Ten Favorite Symphonic Works of the Millennium". The Butterfly Lovers was selected as the only Chinese piece.

It was a remarkable moment when the composer arrived in Hong Kong to receive the award. The scene from that year remains vivid in his memory. This accolade held great significance for him since it was entirely based on votes from the audience.

He believes that the ultimate judges of music are the listeners themselves and that the true measure of a piece's greatness lies not in its awards, but in its wide-reaching dissemination and enduring impact.

"The Butterfly Lovers shares a profound connection with Hong Kong," he says. "As an East-meets-West hub for cultural exchange, Hong Kong serves as both a window on China and a window on the world. I hope to see more Chinese music reaching the global stage through Hong Kong."

In a career of more than half a century, He has continued to search for ways to add Chinese flavor to foreign musical forms and introduce modern features to traditional Chinese music.

With a twinkle in his eye, He quips that he still possesses a surplus of energy and a sharp mind. Engaging in composition, preservation and teaching, he continues to be actively involved in music. Furthermore, his nationwide concert tour in celebration of his 90th birthday is currently in full swing.

"I hope that talented young musicians will master the language of our national music and create more remarkable pieces, bringing the beauty of Chinese music to the world's ears," he says.




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