Erhu for the everyday

There is a general belief that being born into a family of prodigies means a stressful childhood. However, Ray Wong Wai, whose father, Wang Guotong, is an erhu virtuoso who holds the Chinese government-presented title “National Outstanding Expert Contributor,” said he was never forced to learn music.

“It was the erhu that touched me,” he said.

While studying under his father’s disciple from the age of three, he was also exposed to musicians from different disciplines as their family friends came and went.

As a result, Wong is not only a master of classical erhu techniques, but also more than 10 bowed string instruments. He is also a conductor and composer.

Given his family background and his professional education at the Central Conservatory of Music Primary School in Beijing, Wong could have chosen an illustrious career in the world of erhu. But he chose to take the more challenging route.

After immigrating to Hong Kong in 1990, he was exposed to a different city and music scene than the one on the mainland at that time – which inspired him to create his own version of erhu music.

Recognized as “urban erhu music” by Japanese musicologist Hideaki Kikuchi, Wong’s contemporary compositions break the conventionally held stereotypes of the erhu’s sharp timbre and sad, desolate color.

Instead, the more than 300 pieces are pure, peaceful, mellow and refreshing.

“A lot of music nowadays is more technical than melodic. I’m not saying it’s bad, but I think the melody of the music shouldn’t be ignored, as it’s the foundation of the art of music,” he said. “Techniques serve art, and we shouldn’t put the cart before the horse.

“To make a work that will be truly accepted by modern people, it is necessary to pay attention to the listening habits of this era, rather than sticking to technique.”

This philosophy has led him to write music that is pleasant to hear and easy to learn. His up-bow and fingering sequences are relatively easy to grasp, which has led to a large following for his music, especially in Japan.

His Iwate-ken Nocturne was created after the 2011 Tohoku earthquake and tsunami, which severely affected Iwate prefecture, one of seven Japanese cities he once performed in. The music has been loved by the Japanese and has been adapted for guitar, violin and flute. It has even had lyrics put to it.

His works are related to cities in terms of not just the story behind them, but also in the inspiration he gains from the local folk.

Silu Fengqing, or The Vibe of Silk Road, uses Xinjiang folk rhythms and melodies played on the erhu instead of the morin khuur – the stringed instruments of the Western Regions. The combination allows the music to retain its ethnic characteristics while being aesthetically acceptable to the general public, he said.

Wong’s contemporary erhu music is also well known in Macau, where some Chinese restaurants in five-star hotels play his music.

Having lived in the SAR for over 30 years, Wong believes the lack of acceptance of folk music is due to the fast pace of the city. Because of this, people need more soothing music for healing.

In his first concert in the city at Hong Kong City Hall Concert Hall on May 23, Wong has carefully selected works that fit the city’s landscape, as well as some of his well-known works, to play in the hope that everyone will share in the joy of the new form of erhu music.

(This article was published at The Standard on April 30, 2021: Weekend Glitz: Erhu for the everyday )

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