Shen Yun Orchestras: Unifying Two Musical Traditions to Awaken the Senses (2 of 9)

December 20, 2011 12:06 am Last Updated: October 1, 2015 2:59 pm

The Shen Yun Orchestras

All but lost in the East, the essence of an age-old culture rises in the West. This is Part 2 of a nine-part series that explores traditional Chinese culture to reveal a deeper understanding of the genius of New York-based classical Chinese dance company Shen Yun Performing Arts.

Ms. Xiaochun Qi is an Erhu soloist and Shen Yun Orchestra member. She has captivated audiences worldwide with her mastery of her instrument which produces a melancholic sound that is both hauntingly beautiful and stirring. (Courtesy of Shen Yun Performing Arts)

The disparate sounds of traditional Chinese instrumentation and Western classical music have their distinct origins, characteristics, and timing, making them nearly impossible to unite. Since 2007, however, the groundbreaking orchestras for New York-based Shen Yun Performing Arts have successfully accomplished just this.

By harmoniously combining a classical Western orchestra with classical Chinese instruments, the Shen Yun orchestras have unveiled a new musical realm, appreciated by countless audience members worldwide who have experienced their live performances. There are three complete Shen Yun orchestras that tour together with the three Shen Yun dance companies.

The music traditions of East and West each evoke their own range of emotions and sensations. While the Western orchestra can build up energy and portray grandeur, Eastern instruments carry an intricate voice that is characteristic of China’s unique musical tradition.

“Bringing out the quintessence of each of these two great musical traditions, while at the same time presenting a unified theme is one of the distinct features of Shen Yun’s compositions,” said Mr. Junyi Tan, a composer for Shen Yun Performing Arts, in an interview for the Shen Yun Performing Arts website.

East and West, Old and New

The Chinese musical tradition dates back thousands of years, while Western classical music is relatively new in comparison. China’s rich philosophical and spiritual traditions are naturally at the heart of its music. This applies not only to the quality of the sound itself and the composition; it is deeply ingrained and even guides the mechanical process for building each instrument.

“Take the pipa, for example. It stands three feet and five inches tall: the ‘three’ symbolizes heaven, earth, and man; the ‘five’ symbolizes the five elements of Chinese philosophy—metal, wood, water, fire, and earth. Then it also has four strings, symbolizing the four seasons,” said Ms. Jing Xuan, a composer and pipa player for Shen Yun Performing Arts, in an interview for the Shen Yun Performing Arts website.

“Another example is the pairing of the flute and pipa, which are often played together—behind it is the idea of the auspicious dragon and phoenix pair. The flute symbolizes the dragon and the pipa symbolizes the phoenix,” she explains.

This rich symbolism has been a part of China’s culture for millennia. It permeates each walk of life but is especially resonant in the arts, which have long been considered a gift from the divine.

“Chinese instruments’ tonal quality is also closely tied to Chinese philosophy. Traditional Chinese culture emphasizes that all things have a spirit. Reflected in Chinese music, this means that every note is alive,” said Ms. Jing Xuan.

This life is apparent in Shen Yun’s musical pieces, which utilize the strengths of both musical traditions to create an exceptional level of drama, expressiveness, and depth.

“When the dance story requires a grand style, we will accord a lot of emphasis on Western instruments. If there’s a need to depict Oriental sentiments or scenes, we will use Chinese instruments such as erhu, bamboo flute, and pipa, which best express deeper emotions,” Ms. Chia-Chi Lin, a conductor for Shen Yun Performing Arts, told The Epoch Times.

Dance and Music: Unprecedented Synchronization

While Shen Yun’s dancers have amazed the dance world with their masterful degree of coordination and synchronization, the three Shen Yun orchestras have also received countless accolades. It is the Shen Yun conductors who serve as the medium between the dance and the music that accompanies it.

“I thought the orchestra was extraordinary,” said Colin Clarke, a renowned Ontario conductor, to The Epoch Times in a post-performance interview last year.

“You have organic activity with the musicians who are following the conductor who in turn is watching the performance on stage. So to get a 30- to 40-piece orchestra to time their performance with the dancers who are moving at different times is a difficult task,” he said.

Beyond Technique, Beyond Art

Audiences around the world and the elite of the musical world have praised the Shen Yun orchestras for their ability to transcend the realm of music and to fulfill the senses.

“I caught my breath. I dared not even breathe. It was very, very beautiful,” said Touve Ratovondrahety, a pianist for the Ballet Opera House of Paris after watching Shen Yun perform. “I discovered this evening that all the gestures, the musical notes, and everything had a meaning. We are invited to discover spirituality.”

Achieving such an effect is not a simple matter of technique. Although the musicians in Shen Yun’s orchestras come from world-famous symphonies and conservatories, it is a simple conviction that guides them to achieve such extraordinary results.

According to a video on Shen Yun’s website, the Chinese have long believed that to create true art one must first have a beautiful and pure inner self. Artists, poets, and people of all walks of life valued virtues, study, and meditation. All of the performers involved in Shen Yun Performing Arts hold fast to this principle.

The result is a performance worthy of its title. Translated from Chinese, Shen Yun means “divine beauty.”

The Epoch Times is a proud sponsor of Shen Yun Performing Arts, which will perform an all-new 2012 program at Lincoln Center’s David H. Koch Theater January 11–15. To learn more about Shen Yun Performing Arts and Chinese culture, view a calendar of Shen Yun’s 2012 world tour, and for ticket information, please visit