Imagine a night in Corvallis where you can see kung fu artists that rival David Carradine, and whose style influenced Bruce Lee. During the same performance, you’ll hear ancient Chinese instruments unearthed from tombs that are thousands of years old, and see a musical play that captures the essence of the ethereal and beautiful Chinese Lantern Festival.
All of this is happening on Jan. 17, at 7:30 p.m. at Oregon State’s LaSells Stewart Center, when the Huaxia Orchestra from Henan Museum of China and the Shaolin Temple Kung Fu Team come to campus. The performance, which was organized by the School of Arts and Communication in the College of Liberal Arts, combines music, musical theater and martial arts, and brings more than 20 performers to Corvallis to share traditions that few see outside of China.
We recently had the opportunity to talk with Steve Zielke, Oregon State’s director of choral studies, and the conductor of the OSU Chamber Choir about the performance, brass bells that weigh thousands of pounds and why it’s important to engage with China.
Tell us about the exchange between the music department and the Cultural Department of Henan Province.
Henan Province is fascinating. It’s an interior province, and the largest one in China, with about 90 million people. It’s sort of considered the cradle of Chinese civilization. It has several different dynasties going back thousands of years.
Our relationship with Henan goes back more than 12 years, when Marlan Carlson, who directs OSU’s Symphony Orchestra, went to China and met someone who is now a deputy minister in their state cultural department. It’s given us a great opportunity to get access to that province and do great things.
Marlan has been the guest artistic director with their Western symphony orchestra. They’ve brought their Henan opera, which is one of the oldest in China. We’ve had acrobats here from the province. Their ministry of culture supports a whole range of cultural activity, like acrobats, kung fu, musicians, a professional Western-style choir and orchestra, dance, music, theater and art.
Its cultural historical museum, which is amazing, has a 6,000-year history of the province, and of China.
What can people expect from this performance?
The traditional Chinese orchestra will be there. They sit like an American orchestra, but there aren’t any Western instruments. Some traditional Chinese instruments, like the pipa and the erhu, are kind of like our violin and trumpet. Except they’re nothing like it. It’s sort of like eating authentic real Chinese food. You can’t say it resembles what we eat in America. In reality it’s nothing like that at all.
Because this culture is so old in Henan—it’s not like newer cities like Shanghai or Beijing—they bring this more ancient quality that you don’t always get when you go to China. You sort of get it when you visit the Great Wall, or the Forbidden City, but it’s not ancient like this is. It’s really amazing.
They’re also bringing exhibits from the museum, which will be ancient musical presentations, and including these bronze bells. They weigh hundreds and thousands of pounds. We don’t have anything like that. They’ve put these things on a ship to mail to our performance.
In many ways China is politically controversial. Why do you think this performance is important for us to see?
I respect people’s concerns about Chinese human rights and the fact that the Chinese government is heavy-handed about control in a negative way.
But what people need to be reminded of is 1960s and 1970s. The arts, like ballet, choirs, orchestras and painting, were very important in bringing us and the Soviet Union together. We had to be willing to accept that we didn’t alway agree with the Soviet government, but that these artistic and cultural relationships were very important.
The fact that we don’t agree with Chinese human rights is why this is so important. It’s not despite it.
In the arts, we can embrace each other completely. And we can see what we hold in common, which is a love for our families, children and friends. People are too often looking for differences. Differences are important, but you have to look for those areas where you can come in agreement and collaboration. The arts are a perfect place to do that.
What are your goals for this collaboration?
On an immediate level I’d like people to come out of the performance and say, “Wow. That was amazing. We have nothing like that in the United States.” I want people to say, “That is completely different. These are people with an incredible history that we don’t know well enough. We need to learn to respect and honor how wonderful that is.”
In the longer-term, I want people in our university to see possibilities here for future relationships. We should build something that is unique, that will really make a difference in the future of Oregon State.
What are you looking forward to the most?
I’m looking forward most is to the orchestra. It’s all these different sounds that don’t sound like anything in our orchestra.
Is there anything you’d like to add?
It is so important to engage with China right now. And I’m excited for Oregon State’s continued partnerships with our friends in the Henan Province.