Jiang Jian Hua, is a leading exponent of the Chinese two stringed fiddle, the erhu, who through technical genius and innovative interpretation, has helped to bring the erhu into the world domain. Her list of credits is impressive in stature and range. From performing with the world’s greatest orchestras, including the Berlin Philharmonic, to Ryuichi Sakamoto and “The Last Emperor”.
The fascinating story of Jiang Jian Hua began in Shanghai, born into a musical family in 1961. Her uncle, Tang Chujen Gui, was, and still is, a master player of erhu, and from a very young age, Jiang Jian Hua studied under her uncle. Her Mother was from a very large family, and Jiang Jian Hua was one of ten erhu players. Including other instruments the family ensemble of cousins performing together would often number fifteen.
During the Cultural Revolution in China between 1966 and 1976, western classical music disappeared from the scene completely. Jiang Jian believes that otherwise there would now be many more Chinese players of Western classical music. Renowned Japanese conductor, Seiji Ozawa, although of Japanese parentage was born in Manchuria China, and just after the end of the Cultural Revolution in 1976 visited China. When he performed a Brahms Symphony, the audience were moved to tears, and the concert was also an extremely emotional moment for Ozawa. His father had never managed to return to China before he died, and as a tribute to his father Ozawa placed a photograph of him on the conductor’s stand. At the age of 12 , Jiang Jian Hua, had entered the Central Conservatory of Music in China in Beijing . Ozawa also wanted to listen to Chinese classical music and one afternoon visited the Conservatory. Despite her age of just 14, Jiang Jian Hua was selected to play for Ozawa. She performed ‘Er Quan Ying Yue’, and Ozawa sat and cried through the performance. Not only was he touched by the music of his birthplace and the recent tragic history, but also the emotional sensitivity of her playing. That evening he returned to hear her play once again.
Jiang Jian Hua was singled out as a protégé of the erhu from a young age and partook in a special course at the Conservatory, that included piano and composition. The wife of Chairman Mao, Jiang Quing, was a patron of the Conservatory, and Jiang Jian was on each occasion chosen to perform for her on her bi-annual visits. Jiang Jian Hua remained at the Conservatory until she was 22 years old, turning from a student into a professor, virtually being a professional player throughout this time. At the age of 14 she joined the tour of the Shanghai Symphony Orchestra to Australia, New Zealand and Hong Kong. Jiang Jian played with a small ensemble of traditional musicians who supported the main Symphony Orchestra. The ensemble practiced for long hours, every day for eight months in preparation. They were told of the superiority of the Chinese nation, and that it was their responsibility to introduce the culture of China to the world. The ensemble received raptuous applause wherever they performed, although from this age Jiang Jian was impressed with western countries, and perhaps realised that China was not quite as wonderful as she had been told throughout her life.
Another turning point in her life occurred in November of 1978, when one of the world’s premier orchestras the Berlin Philharmonic, under Herbert Von Karajan, visited China for the first time. Jiang Jian Hua after the concert performed at a party for the members of the Orchestra. She played one of the most difficult classical pieces for violin , Pablo de Sarasate’s Gypsy piece ‘Zigeunerweisen’. At the end of the performance, the Berlin Philharmonic’s principle violinist was completely astonished by her technical dexterity and her new arrangement to suit the two stringed erhu. He invited Jiang Jian Hua to Berlin to learn the violin, and offered his support to lobby the Chinese authorities to issue her with a visa. However, despite his generosity , Jiang Jian Hua decided not to take the offer up, but to continue playing the erhu, the instrument she was born to play. At the airport on the way back to Berlin, Herbert Von Karajan, who too had been entranced by her performance took Jiang Jian’s face in his hands and expressed how he had been touched and had felt the passion in her playing. However, this was not to be the last the Berlin Philharmonic would hear of Jiang Jian Hua.
In 1988, the Berlin Philharmonic invited her to Berlin to play an erhu concerto with the full orchestra, conducted by Seiji Ozawa. Herbert Von Karajan, was sick at the time, but was much looking forward to hearing this very special performance. Sadly it was not to be. On the same day as the concert Herbert Von Karajan died and the whole performance turned into a tribute for the conductor, who had taken the Berlin Philharmonic to the status as perhaps the world’s most revered orchestra.
The first time Jiang Jian Hua had played erhu together with a western orchestra was in 1978, and this also heralded a new era for the instrument, which hitherto had simply been played as a Chinese traditional instrument. She first performed an erhu concerto with Ozawa and the Boston Symphony Orchestra at the Tanglewood Festival in the US. It is believed that only Jiang Jian Hua possesses the technical ability and flexibility to play the erhu with a western orchestra.
She has subsequently toured America on five occasions, performing with the San Francisco Orchestra and the Boston Symphony Orchestra. In 1990 she played at the 100 year anniversary celebrations of the Carnegie Hall in New York with the Shanghai Symphony Orchestra. She had not played with them for 15 years, when as a young teenager she had toured overseas as a traditional instrumentalist. This time, she performed an erhu concerto and subsequently undertook a one month tour of the United States with the orchestra, across seventeen cities.
In addition, Jiang Jian Hua has played in Africa and throughout Asia, including her native China, her adopted country Singapore, Korea, Hong Kong and Taiwan. Erhu is a familiar instrument to the Chinese people living in these countries, and many have expressed their gratitude to Jiang Jian for bringing back their traditional music to them.
When Ryuichi Sakamoto composed the score for the 1987 Bernardo Bertolucci movie The ‘Last Emperor ‘he had no difficulty in choosing which soloist and instrument would best convey the atmosphere of the film. Jiang Jian Hua’s haunting improvisation passages were the soundtracks most memorable moments. The greatest tribute possible was paid when Sakamoto won an Oscar for the best movie soundtrack. The Oscar win became big news in China, and the name of Jiang Jian Hua was heralded as a heroine of Chinese music.
Jiang Jian Hua currently resides in Tokyo although she travels widely throughout the world. She performs with all the major Japanese orchestras, has been featured on numerous TV programmes and is a visiting Professor at several Universities. She has gone on to record several albums for Japanese record companies in a diverse range of styles.
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