For three weeks every summer, you can feel Edinburgh buzzing as the International Festival and the Fringe take over the city. Just yards from the noise and bustle of the street, I found a gem of serenity in St Cuthbert’s Church, at the West End: a recital of all six of Bach’s Suites for Unaccompanied Cello performed by Anne-Isabel Meyer, over three consecutive days.
Despite the grandeur of its ornate decoration, St Cuthbert’s feels like an intimate setting for unaccompanied cello. Its acoustic is resonant but clear and Anna-Isabel Meyer obviously loves playing here. This London-based cellist has a calm demeanour and she played with a warm tone. Each day, I felt even more privileged to hear how she allowed Bach’s music to speak with precision and clarity – no adornment or over interpretation here. Throughout the performance, the intricate melodic patterns of the preludes flowed freely, as did the dance-like quality of the allemandes, sarabandes, minuets and gigues. The famous bourrées of the third Suite just danced for joy.
Her performance of the Sarabande of Suite 5, for me, epitomised her sensitivity to Bach’s score. The music of this movement is apparently simple, no chords, no accompanying figures, trills or dotted rhythms. Meyer simply let the natural rise and fall of the phrases create their own meaning, allowing us to make what we would, of Bach’s perfectly crafted melody. I found it profoundly moving.
The sixth suite, written for a five stringed cello, truly tests the cellist. Playing this on a four-stringed cello, you have to create the higher sounds using the thumb in place of the extra string. She explained to the audience how at first this is painful and can lead to a blister on the thumb – I’ve had that blister too! Watching closely from the front row, I observed her meticulous technique, as she created the chords and inner harmonies and allowed the melodies to dance above them.
“Playing Bach’s cello suites is like going on a journey” Anne-Isabel Meyer tells us, “and next time it may be completely different.”
Here is a cellist with a deeply musical sensitivity. I look forward to joining her next year when she returns to St. Cuthbert’s to make that journey with the Bach Suites once again.
When Peter Hudler plays his cello, “it almost sets on fire” he says, “it’s a question of cost!” The pizazz of his playing, strikes you from the moment his bow lands dramatically on the lower strings at the beginning of his opening piece, Stonehenge by Peter Pejtsik. It’s clear we are in for an exciting show.
His repertoire spans from the 18th century, with a piece by Giuseppe Dall’Abaco, (in Hudler’s opinion a ‘more sensual’ Bach) to the present day, with a contemporary jazz piece by John Zorn. Hudler’s cello becomes a flamenco-style guitar in one piece and bluegrass fiddle in another. The next moment it takes on a flute-like quality for Debussy’s Syrinx. Hudler’s choice of programme highlights the cello’s expressive range. His virtuoso skill and his sheer enjoyment are on display, as his bow bounces or rocks across the strings with ease and rapidity, his fingers whizzing along the length of the fingerboard. His tone ranges from warm and velvety to whisperingly soft. Special effects come from flutey sounding harmonics, percussive bowing, percussive finger-tapping, and detuning a string in some pieces to create chords with powerful pedal-notes.
His enthusiasm and warm personality shine through the whole performance and he even invites us to meet him after the show if we have any questions. There was just time for an encore, Song of the Birds (based on a Catalan song arranged for cello by Casals) a simple melody, alternating with trilling bird sounds.
“Good morning. We will start our music group practice today from 11.30 am. You are welcome to join us.”
Every Saturday morning during term time Mike Wang sends me a WhatsApp message. He travels from Stirling to Edinburgh once a week to run the Edinburgh Chinese Community Orchestra so he’s always hoping for a good turn out of our mixed group of musicians – people of all ages and of Chinese/Hong Kong/UK heritage.
During the rehearsal, Mike talks fast in English one minute and Chinese the next. He’s talking about tempo, tuning, volume, who to follow and when, and practical arrangements for upcoming performances. The Cantonese and English speakers look confused when he speaks Mandarin and a multi-lingual translation follows until everyone works out what’s happening. Mike’s enthusiasm is faultless and, as soon as we finish one series of concerts, amongst the swapping of video clips, he sends us messages of congratulation, complete with hand-clapping emojis. And then he sends pages of Chinese music and You Tube clips in preparation for our next performance.
That’s Mike the musical director but I have been wondering about Mike the erhu-player. When and where did he learn and how had he become such a fine player? Over a plate of noodles from a local take-away and several cups of tea, he told me about his musical education and brought me up to date.
Mike grew up in Shanghai and started to play the erhu at the age of three.
“My parents sent me to a special music kindergarten, they wanted me to play the piano. But the piano teacher said my hands were too small, so I should play erhu instead. I started to play on a small instrument. I didn’t like it. My parents didn’t like it either. No-one likes it because at the beginning you are like a wood farmer.”
He mimes a sawing movement. “You sound like sawing wood! So everyday my parents put a small chair out in the next street and tell me to practise there outside. They could hear me – but it wasn’t too loud – and they could keep an eye on me whilst they watched TV. I hated it because I wanted to watch TV too.” But, he said tellingly, “the aim is very clear – to go from level one to ten and take examinations.”
So Mike continued his erhu practice as he progressed through school. Then when he reached level three, one of his tutors, Lin Wei suggested he join a student orchestra (which practised for five hours every Saturday).
“I think it is the best students’ orchestra in Shanghai. It is a big orchestra of Chinese and Western instruments including about thirty erhu players. I began to learn from my peers and not just my tutors and there was a bit of competition as I compared my playing with the other players and I copied their style. I began to play with more emotion, more feeling. I learnt technique step by step but the turning point came when my tutor told me I should sing the music first, not just play it.”
In any culture, singing the music can help instrumentalists develop a clear idea of melodic phrasing. In addition, the erhu is particularly renowned for its plaintive tone which can often resemble a human voice – perhaps this practice helped Mike to achieve that quality in his playing.
Determined to advance further, he started recording himself on a small cassette recorder: “it was not a good experience – if you record you will know the fact, the reality.” He also learnt from videos online, “it was like research … breaking the melody up and analysing it.” When he reached level ten he played a piece which became one of his favourites: Hong Hu – a theme from an opera and film from the 1950s.
After Level ten, he didn’t practise as much, as he was concentrating on his academic studies: going on to Fudan University in Shanghai to study physics. When he came to Stirling University, for postgraduate study in Finance, his parents suggested he take his erhu with him.
“Why not? It is a good way to make friends”
The story comes full circle as we find the adult Mike now in Scotland, not wanting to disturb his flatmates, sitting outside in the street practising his erhu. “Same as in my childhood – I take a chair outside to practise erhu and one day a Chinese lady came past when I am sitting outside MacDonald’s. When I finished playing, she told me that her brother works at a local restaurant and he plays dizi (bamboo flute).” From that encounter Mike came to know the Glasgow Cantonese opera group and the Edinburgh group and now a whole network of musicians.
After being invited to perform at a few events, Mike received more invitations and now his diary soon fills up. His life is hectic at times, not just running his business – finding and organising English language teachers for agencies and companies around the world but also organising upcoming concerts for the Chinese Orchestra. He is in demand. His phone pings several times as we chat and now he needs to find some musicians for a ‘dragon dance’ on Tuesday. He might have to play instead. “Would you be available if they want a group to play?” On the train back home to Stirling, he’s already on WhatsApp trying to arrange rehearsals, checking everyone’s availability, for next month’s concerts.
I think the only time I see Mike slow down is when he is playing a solo in concert. His erhu playing is soulful. He closes his eyes as he plays a beautiful melody that has his audience spellbound. How can this tiny simple looking instrument with only two strings and a bamboo bow have such a range of expression? Then Mike’s fingers start flying and his bowing arm turns to a blur as he launches into ‘Racing Horse’, a piece that is as descriptive as music can be, as the bow whips the strings, the music accelerates and the erhu comes to life, whinnying and neighing!
How did I, a Mancunian (no not Manchurian – I’m from Manchester) living in Edinburgh, come to be playing in a Chinese orchestra? I often get asked this question (not the Mancunian bit) and the answer is – just by chance.
I happened to meet musician and composer, Kimho Ip, in a school where he was demonstrating Chinese musical instruments. I mentioned to him that I was learning to play the erhu (Chinese bowed stringed instrument) and before I could tell him that I was only a beginner, he had invited me to play in Edinburgh’s Chinese Community Orchestra.
I was delighted to be asked but slightly nervous as my playing was very basic. I’m not being modest – I could only play in the key of D. I had a look online but could find no mention of Edinburgh’s Chinese Community Orchestra. Of course, because – as I soon found out – it is not a formal organisation. Everything happens by word of mouth – usually Mrs Szeto’s! She is a pillar of the Chinese community in Edinburgh, who knows everyone and can organise anything. It was Mrs Szeto who had the idea to set up the Chinese women’s association in Edinburgh, back in the 90s, that evolved into a Cantonese opera group. Getting together in one another’s houses, chatting, cooking and eating together, helped these women find a renewed sense of community, as they reminisced about their lives in Hong Kong. It wasn’t long before they were singing and playing Cantonese music. And some began to take lessons on Chinese instruments.
In 1999, when Kimho came from Hong Kong to study for his PhD in composition at the University of Edinburgh, he too came under Mrs Szeto’s wing – or was it the other way round? Either way, he was able to follow his supervisor’s advice to explore his Hong Kong cultural heritage, through a connection with these Cantonese opera musicians. He gave lessons on the yangqin (hammered dulcimer) and Mrs Szeto invited some players from Stirling and Glasgow to help on other instruments. Soon they were ready to perform in public. One particular event, held in Edinburgh’s Royal Botanic Garden, combined a musical performance with the serving of tea, in a setting arranged like a ‘Chinese Teahouse’. It was a great boost to the morale of the musicians to have the general public admiring their presentation of Chinese culture. This was the real beginning of Edinburgh Chinese Community Orchestra (ECCO).
When I joined them, in 2009, I became the only non-Chinese person in the orchestra and was only just getting the hang of Chinese notation (not to mention the erhu). Yet through that musical encounter, I was welcomed into the Chinese music community and have since met some of the friendliest people I know.
Apart from a core group, the personnel of ECCO has changed over the years. Kimho went on to work in Germany and is now back in Hong Kong as Associate Professor at Lignan University. There are several university students who have joined the orchestra for the duration of their various courses, boosting the musical ensemble with their instrumental skills and good company before moving on.
One musician in particular, a brilliant computer scientist, joined the orchestra because of a chance encounter with me! I had been playing cello in a concert at Edinburgh’s Queens Hall and afterwards, mingling with the audience in the bar, I saw a Chinese couple talking excitedly. He seemed to be miming playing an erhu. I crossed the bar to speak to them and I asked if by any chance he played the erhu. He looked shocked!
“Yes … how did you know?”
“Because I saw you going like that …” (mime erhu playing)
still looking shocked
“and because I play the erhu.”
eyes widen further
“You play the erhu? Weren’t you playing the cello?”
“Yes, but I play the erhu as well. I play in a Chinese orchestra would you like to join?”
even more shocked
“There’s a Chinese orchestra in Edinburgh?”
Actually they were from Malaysia, a very friendly couple, and when I told them about ECCO, he was keen to join and came to a rehearsal – the following day. He turned out to be such a good all-round musician that he was soon co-opted as director. The couple returned to Malaysia when he completed his studies but have kept in touch ever since.
Luckily, ECCO has found another enthusiastic musical director – erhu player Mike from Shanghai. That came about because of another chance encounter but that’s another story …
Over the coming weeks, I will introduce you to some of the musicians, their instruments and their music. In the meantime, here’s some photos taken earlier this year (2019) by designer and photographer Cynthia Wan, children’s music tutor at the Chinese school.
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