Saving Chinese folk songs one at a time

Updated: 2015-10-05 10:36

By Hezi Jiang in New York(China Daily USA)

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Pang Xuan wants to preserve Chinese folk songs; she just needed a little push from her friends and family.

"I was really lost and frustrated weeks ago," Pang, a classically trained mezzo soprano, told China Daily during a break from her Oct 3 concert Silk Road by Vocal Arts at the Weill Recital Hall at Carnegie Hall in New York.

"I didn't know what I was doing this for," she said. "Then I see all my family and friends are supporting me, helping me to do this without asking for anything in return, and many were donating money for me.

 Saving Chinese folk songs one at a time

Pang Xuan, a classically trained mezzo soprano, performs at her concert Silk Road by Vocal Arts on Oct 3 at the Weill Recital Hall of Carnegie Hall in New York. Hezi Jiang / China Daily.

"We want to save the Chinese folk songs from disappearing, and share them with the Western world," she said. "There are a group of us musicians who are doing this."

Pang, 29, has raised $2,696 through Indiegogo for the concert, which brings Western classical vocal performance and traditional Chinese folk songs onto one stage.

At Carnegie Hall, she took the audience on a musical journey starting in Europe - singing operas from Germany to France to Italy, concluding with Mozart's Don Giovanni.

Trained at the Manhattan School of Music and China's Central Conservatory of Music for classical vocal performance, Pang brought out the strength of the beautiful Rosina in Rossini's opera The Barber of Seville and soon led the audience into sorrow with her performance of Verdi's Otello.

The second half of the concert was a journey back to China, with regional folk songs from Yunnan, Sichuan, Shandong, Hunan and Xinjiang provinces.

Pang's mom, Wang Changzhi, was a renowned folk singer. She was singing solo on stage when she was five months pregnant with Pang.

"I played music for her since she was in there," said Wang.

"Before she could speak, she could hum Beethoven's For Elise," said Wang. "She imitated me teaching and tutored my students on how to sing."

Pang learns regional folk songs as a hobby. "In high school, my mom assigned me to learn 100 Chinese folk songs," Pang said.

"I used to struggle a little bit about switching between singing Western classical songs and Chinese folk songs. Now it's easy-peasy," she said.

Since 2011, she has been performing Western operas in China and Chinese folk songs in the United States. Pang has brought the folk songs to United Nations headquarters and Lincoln Center and started a lecture tour: China: A Lyrical Journey, which has been to Columbia, Harvard and New York universities among its stops.

Pang was not alone on the journey. Besides family and friends, several Chinese interpreters have been helping her translate the Chinese folk songs into English.

"Translating a song is very hard," said Chen Feng, a senior interpreter at the United Nations who volunteered to help Pang with seven to eight songs. "Not only the meaning has to be correct, but the length. And the sound of the words needs to be deliberately chosen." Chen revised one song more than 40 times.

Chinese folk songs have gotten a lot of attention lately. First lady Peng Liyuan, who was in the US with President Xi Jinping on his state visit, coached an American girl singing the Yunnan folk song Flowing River at The Juilliard School in New York on Sept 29.

When asked if Chinese folk songs can catch on internationally, Pang said: "I don't know. I can't just focus on the result. I have to try. Arts have to fit in with the time period, and new artists have to come out with new interpretations and ways to perform.

"I go to all kinds of events to perform, no matter how small they are, because every new person who knows about it matters," she said. "One more and then one more."