Ping-pong meets music in diplomatic tryst

Updated: 2015-10-23 08:15

By Chen Jie(China Daily USA)

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In April 1971, members of a US table tennis team became the first American athletes to visit China before the two countries established diplomatic relations. The sport helped to pave the way for Richard Nixon to come to Beijing in February of the following year. Two months after the US president's visit, Chinese table tennis players were invited to the United States.

The "ping-pong diplomacy" was on display again - this time at Beijing's Poly Theater, where players and musicians from both countries gathered on Thursday to perform a show cheering Sino-US exchanges of the early 1970s.

Co-commissioned by the Beijing Music Festival and Shanghai's Music in Summer Air festival, the Ping-Pong Concerto witnessed an orchestra, violin soloist, a percussionist and two table tennis players working together. A real table for the match was set in front of the members of China Philharmonic Orchestra and conductor Zhang Yi's podium.

In the first few minutes, the violinist Elizabeth Zeltser from New York Philharmonic played the major part of the piece. Then the US table tennis player Michael Landers and Chinese-American player Ariel Hsing played their game as the orchestra performed. The ball went back and forth, making a a rhythmic sound on the table.

Then percussionist David Cossin joined in. He used different cooking instruments such as the dough rolling stick to hit the table and a beverage bottle on it.

"For me it's the mixing of unique concepts," says American composer Andy Akiho, 36. "It's not only novelty but a real music piece in which ping-pong players are the musicians, too. It's a conversation between the orchestra, the soloist and the players."

Akiho likes to explore crossover music and has had many opportunities to create new music.

When Yu Long, artistic director of the Beijing Music Festival, talked with his agency, Columbia Arts Management Inc in New York, about commissioning a piece to commemorate the "ping-pong diplomacy", a friend recommended Akiho to him. They then went to the SPiN Club in New York, which combines table tennis with live music.

"It started as a joke - we watched ping-pong games and thought it's cool to create music combining (it with) the sport," Akiho told China Daily during rehearsals before the concert.

"It's crazy. I don't play ping-pong myself. But it turned out to be a serious music experiment."

Then they looked for two real table tennis players in the club. Hsing, a 20-year-old champion in US women's table tennis, seemed like a perfect choice, followed by Landers, who not only played table tennis in China, but also the bassoon and piano. Landers, 21, started to learn music and table tennis around the same time as a child.

He played the bassoon at Carnegie Hall at age 13. For a long time he was not sure which to choose as a career but eventually he chose the sport because it meant "more action".

"I had never thought I would return to the music stage. When I played ping-pong for this piece, I felt like a musician, not an athlete," Landers says.

Landers has visited Wuhan, Hubei province, every year since 2008 and each time stayed for three months for training in table tennis.

The violinist Zeltser says that when she talked with the composer at SPiN Club, she felt interested about mixing the sounds of the table tennis ball with music.

"The violin is a very melodic instrument, so the concept of the violin through a ping-pong game is to make it not only melodic but also percussive," she says. "It's definitely a challenging work, and I'm honored to play it in the master country of the game."

Conductor Zhang says the piece is interesting and colorful not only musical but also visually.

 Ping-pong meets music in diplomatic tryst

Table tennis players share the stage with musicians in the PingPong Concerto in Beijing.Jiang Dong / China Daily

(China Daily USA 10/23/2015 page15)