Enter The Yangqin

There are few musicians in Malaysia who are professionally trained in Chinese instruments and Don Tew Tiong Ley is one of them. Orchestra conductor, music director, vocalist and yangqin soloist all rolled into one, Tew currently has his heart and mind set on the yangqin or dulcimer.

Among the better-known Chinese instruments are guzheng (Chinese harp) and erhu (Chinese violin) while yangqin is rather foreign to most people. But now the instrument is to be given greater exposure when Tew and his eight students present the first yangqin ensemble concert in Kuala Lumpur at the end of the month.

The 31-year-old confesses that he likes to attempt things which people have not done before.

“Whether there is a market or not, I wanted to venture into something new, something that has not been done by many people. Eventually when a small market appears, you will feel you have achieved something,” he says in fluent Mandarin.

He is all excited about the coming concert, which he calls a very new kind of experimentation. The performers are all in their late teens with an average of five years learning the musical instrument. But they have gone through hours of gruelling practice under the supervision and guidance of Tew, and are now confident to offer the audience a refreshing concert.

The presentation of the concert is also unique.

“The musicians will be arranged in a semi-circle and the audience will be seated very nearby to experience the yangqin‘s pure sound without any microphone,” says Tew. “For the first day, an emcee will be there to introduce the yangqin‘s history, musical development, and compositions in between pieces. So, the audience will be having a lesson on yangqin!”

There will be a matinee with tickets priced at RM10 for primary school children, as Tew believes one has to start them young to nurture the next generation.

So far, the response had been good from the Chinese music scene but Tew does not want to limit his concert to Chinese educated audiences.

Although the repertoire this time around consists of 13 traditional Chinese musical pieces played mostly in a group, with some solos and duets, the dulcimer is in fact an international instrument.

‘The dulcimer originated from Persia and the Middle-Eastern region, it then came into China and evolved to become the Chinese yangqin. It is versatile and not just limited to Chinese music; thus we want to attempt to play World Music, African music and Japanese music.”

After this concert, Tew will be auditioning for more musicians to expand the ensemble, as he hopes it will become an orchestra with 40 members on yangqin and 10 on percussions, holding one or two concerts every year.

Born in Klang and a music enthusiast since childhood, Tew started playing Chinese instruments at 13 when he joined the Klang-based Xin Yun Chinese Orchestra where he became the conductor four years ago. His concerto debut was at the age of 15 when he played the Yan River Yangqin Concerto with the orchestra.

Tew graduated from Malaysian Institute of Art majoring in vocal performance with a minor in violin performance. In 1994, he became the first Malaysian to pursue a double major (yangqin and vocal) at the renowned Shanghai Conservatory of China. A baritone, he won the second-class award in the National Foreigner Singing competition organised by the Beijing Television. His outstanding results at the conservatory enabled him to graduate two years ahead of his course schedule.

For a long while he faced resistance from family and friends who asked him, “What can you do with the instrument?”

Their worries seemed to be valid as Tew did not have a single student for one whole year after he returned to Malaysia. But he was not discouraged. And now after four years, his eight yangqin students are something he is proud of.

At present, Tew’s takes on several roles: orchestra conductor, vocal instructor and yangqin teacher. He lectures on yangqin and vocal performance at the Malaysian Institute of Art besides nurturing and conducting the Xin Yun Chinese Orchestra.

This June, he was invited to be the resident conductor of the Professional Cultural Centre Orchestra. Tew’s relationship with the PCCO began in June last year when he was the yangqin soloist in the PCCO’s Yellow River Concerto performance.

Now, he is helping the former conductor of PCCO to rehearse for a few concerts that include two performances in January next year at the Dewan Filharmonik Petronas.

“I am honoured to be chosen as the resident conductor of the PCCO but I turned down the two-year contract which they wanted me to sign,” says Tew.

“There may be opportunities but they may not work for you. Thus, I asked for one year contract first and see how I could handle the job.”

Tew confesses that doing something full time is not his cup of tea.

“It takes up too much of your time. Already in Malaysia, there are too few Chinese musicians with qualifications in Chinese instruments. Education in Chinese musicians is much needed and it is paramount to nurture and educate the next generation.

He says musicians here usually end up teaching, as the Malaysian environment does not permit you to be solely a performer.

Now, Tew just wants to devote more time to developing interest in the yangqin, an instrument which has not been given much exposure, but has much to offer. The instrument, he says, produces a very special, melodious and tuneful sound.

So how will he do it?

“First, you need to create activities like concerts to raise awareness and exposure of Chinese music instruments for the public, especially to target the younger generation. You have to challenge the young people’s interests, and then play an educational role to nurture and train them up.”



First Published: 16.07.2002 on Kakiseni


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