A blog sponsored by the Michigan State University Museum's Michigan Traditional Arts Program, a partnership with the Michigan Council for Arts and Cultural Affairs. Sharing news and information about the Great Lakes Folk Festival, Quilt Index, the MSU Museum's traditional arts activities, Great Lakes traditional artists and arts resources, and much more. Development of content for this blog supported by funding from the National Endowment for the Arts.

Friday, December 5, 2014

A Chinese Orchestra for Michigan State University

I first encountered the Silk Road Chinese Orchestra (SRCO) at an April 17, 2013 concert at Marshall Music in Lansing. It was quite by chance that I noticed the small flyer advertising the event. I thought that the concert would be a rare opportunity to see a traditional Chinese orchestra in the Lansing area (and for free!). To my delight I learned that— rather than a traveling ensemble― this was a Michigan State University student group founded by Shanghai native, Shujing (Andrea) Xu. Shujing was inspired to start the orchestra based on her own experience with similar ensembles in China: from 2009-2010, for example, she served as student director of the Student Orchestra of Shanghai.

Now in its third year, the SRCO recently added this photo to its Facebook page,
taken at the Eli and Edythe Broad Art Museum on MSU’s campus in fall, 2014.
Photo courtesy of SRCO, used with permission.

Although inspired by much older antecedents, this type of Chinese orchestra— set up in a Western format with a conductor, stage, and music stands— first appeared in China in the 1930s. These ensembles typically feature a mix of traditional Chinese and Western instruments: bowed strings, plucked strings, winds, and percussion. Compositions often highlight or contrast the different timbres of the various sections of instruments.

This photo, taken at the SRCO’s second annual spring concert in March, 2014, shows the sections of instruments. From left, the bowed two-string spiked fiddle erhu; (back row) the hand cymbals and temple blocks of the percussion section; the wind section, featuring the side-blown flute dizi; the Western cello and string bass; and (foreground) two guzheng or Chinese zithers, liuqin (small, pear-shaped fretted lute) and pipa (larger fretted lute). Directly behind the conductor is the trapezoidal yangqin, a Chinese hammer dulcimer. Founder Shujing (Andrea) Xu is the liuqin player, second from right. Photo courtesy of SRCO.
Hear the SRCO of MSU play the well-known piece, “Blooming Flowers and Full Moon,” which concluded their spring concert held in the Cook Recital Hall of the MSU College of Music, March 27, 2014.

This performance illustrates the tonal nature of music played by Chinese traditional orchestras. The piece is characteristic in its use of a unison texture contrasted with different sections of instruments (such as flutes, plucked strings or bowed strings) each playing the melody while the rest provide accompaniment. Video by Haochen Han, courtesy of SRCO.

Shujing Xu has worked tirelessly to make the SRCO a success. She began her study of the liuqin at age four while attending a special school for the arts in Shanghai: the small size of the instrument was deemed especially suitable for a young girl. She continued to play and study. When her university career brought her to MSU, she thought, “Is there any Chinese orchestra here that I can play with?” Initially, she shared her musical artistry as a solo performer, first at a monthly meeting of MSU’s LATTICE (Linking All Types of Teachers to International Cross-Cultural Education), and later at various cross-cultural events such as World Culture Day, Chinese Night, World Friendship Day, and the Greater Lansing United Nations Peace Day.

Shujing (Andrea) Xu, founder of the SRCO at MSU, rehearses on her liuqin.
During fall and spring semesters, the ensemble practices about eight hours weekly.
Photo by Laurie Kay Sommers, 2013
In 2013, with encouragement from Kang Li, an academic advisor at MSU, she decided to form MSU’s first Chinese orchestra. “At first I started with Chinese Facebook and a mailing list from CSSA (Chinese Student and Scholar Association),” she recalled, “to ask if people could play instruments and wanted to be in my orchestra. I collected names, and found scores through my teacher in China.” One major difficulty was getting instruments. Few students bring their instruments from China. With help from the University’s Confucius Institute, Office for University Outreach and Engagement, and other organizations, she was able to obtain instruments. She held auditions, recruited a conductor, and worked to adapt the scores to the instruments and varied abilities of the orchestra members. The ensemble maintains a rigorous practice schedule and performs on campus and in the community. In 2014, SRCO appeared at MSU’s Global Festival, local celebrations of Chinese New Year, and the Broad Museum of Art, among other events.

SRCO conductor Shupeng Zhang with yangquin player Yaoting Xu, in rehearsal, 2013.
 Photo by Laurie Kay Sommers.
In recognition of her contributions to international and cross-cultural awareness at MSU and in surrounding communities, Shujing was awarded a 2014 Homer Higbee International Education Award from MSU’s Office of International Programs. The text of the award reads in part, “The SRCO provides an opportunity for Chinese students to celebrate their cultural heritage while connecting with other Chinese students on campus. Their music also serves as an important creative outlet for them, a time-out from their rigorous studies. The success of SRCO is due to Shujing’s exceptional musical talent, leadership capacity, high intelligence, hardworking spirit, and maturity. She has made a great impact on the MSU campus, at local schools, and in surrounding communities—volunteering her time so that others might have an experience that enriches them culturally and enlivens them personally.”

Hear Shujing Xu play an arrangement of “Li Xianglan” at the 2014 SRCO spring concert.


The piece is an instrumental version of the haunting song of lost love made famous by Hong Kong singer and actor, Jacky Cheung. It is a tribute to the late Yoshiko “Shirley” Yamaguchi (stage name Li Xianglan), a Chinese-born singer, actress, and politician of Japanese heritage who recently died at the age of 94. Video by Haochen Han, courtesy of SRCO.

This post was written by Laurie Sommers in conjunction iwth the Michigan Traditional Arts Program (MTAP). Field research with the SRCO in 2013-2014 was funded by a grant awarded to MTAP from the National Endowment for the Arts.