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Composition salutes cherished heritage

Updated: Apr 30, 2024 By Chen Nan China Daily Global Print
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The Hong Kong Gaudeamus Dunhuang Ensemble performing A Dialogue between Dunhuang and the Palace Museum — Across 2,000 Years of Chinese Heritage in Beijing last Tuesday. CHINA DAILY

When he was a sophomore student at the Hong Kong Academy for Performing Arts with a major in composition, Kam Shing-hei made his first trip to the Mogao Caves in Dunhuang, Gansu province.

He was overwhelmed by the UNESCO World Heritage Site, which is known for nearly 500 caves carved into cliffs between the 4th and 14th centuries.

"I was intrigued by the exquisite murals and sculptures. After returning to Hong Kong, I read lots of books about Dunhuang and learned about the murals. It seemed that I was ushered into a new world," says Kam.

Later, the young musician returned to Dunhuang a number of times. After graduating, he joined the Hong Kong Gaudeamus Dunhuang Ensemble as its composer-in-residence and is now its artistic director.

Last year, the ensemble premiered A Dialogue between Dunhuang and the Palace Museum — Across 2,000 Years of Chinese Heritage, a concert featuring compositions by Kam and another composer-in-residence at the ensemble, Chu Kai-yeung.

The concert was held in Quanzhou, Fujian province, Guangzhou, Guangdong province, and Haikou, Hainan province. Last Tuesday, the ensemble brought the concert to Beijing and on the following day, it was staged in Tianjin. It was the first time for both cities to host the concert.

As young musicians played ancient musical instruments, the audience also enjoyed giant murals from the Mogao Caves projected onto the big screen behind the stage.

"Although the Mogao Caves in Dunhuang and the Palace Museum in Beijing are from two different eras, spaces and realms, they both link together and express 2,000 years of Chinese culture. Through this concert, the historical dialogue between the two world heritage sites is told through nine pieces," says Kam.

The Palace Museum is also known as the Forbidden City, China's imperial palace from 1420 to 1911.

Musicians of the ensemble play work in Beijing inspired by the Mogao Caves. CHINA DAILY

The composer adds that the idea for the concert started in 2022 when he was invited to compose music to mark the opening of the Hong Kong Palace Museum.

"The murals are colorful, so is the architecture of the Palace Museum in Beijing. Their colors inspired me to write music," says Kam, adding that Chu, who was studying composition with Guo Wenjing at the Central Conservatory of Music in Beijing, wrote music inspired by the Palace Museum.

"He (Chu) told me that he went to the Palace Museum almost every week and he felt so touched and inspired when he visited the museum," adds Kam.

One of the pieces that Chu wrote is named after the museum. In it, he portrays the magnificent imperial palace by using instruments, such as the pipa (a four-stringed Chinese lute), the ruan (a traditional plucked instrument) and the sheng (ancient Chinese wind instrument).

Chu also wrote a piece titled Sorrow of a Changsha Woman, which features two ruan and a sheng, adapted from ancient Chinese compositions studied by the renowned scholar and polymath Jao Tsung-i.

In Fugue in C Major, Kam borrowed the ancient Chinese compositions found in Dunhuang and combined them with a fugue, a compositional technique mostly used in Western classical music. He was also inspired by the murals of the Mogao Caves, especially the hand gestures, which led him to write Offering.

For the concert, Kam also composed Thank You for Your Time, which he dedicated to the people working at the two ancient sites, guarding and preserving their treasures.

"We also call the concert 'a tale of heaven, earth and humans'. The Mogao Caves in Dunhuang is like a heaven to us. The Palace Museum is on Earth. The people who work at the two sites connect their history to the present day," Kam adds.

Composer Kam Shing-hei.CHINA DAILY

The idea of launching the Hong Kong Gaudeamus Dunhuang Ensemble started with Leonie Ki Man-fung, the ensemble's honorary director and founder, who took a group of aspiring young musicians from Hong Kong to visit the Mogao Caves in 2017, many of them seeing the site for the first time.

The first cave they visited was Cave 112. It is dimly lit, and only four people are allowed inside at a time. They had to be extremely careful not to touch or damage the murals, which feature the famous image of the goddess playing a pipa behind her back.

"When we had dinner that night, the students cried, telling me how much they loved and were touched by the murals. It was at that moment that I was inspired by this profound experience to establish an orchestra," says Ki, a major figure in the advertising industry of Hong Kong.

In 2018, she founded the Hong Kong Gaudeamus Dunhuang Ensemble. By adapting ancient Dunhuang musical scores, Ki hopes to share Dunhuang's art and culture with people from around the world and give the Chinese ancient scores a modern touch.

"Dunhuang was a place where culture, ideas, religion, and art from different countries met," says Ki. "Hong Kong also plays a role as an East-meets-West hub for international cultural exchange.

"When we performed in Dunhuang on Sept 15, 2018, in front of the famous nine-floor Big Buddha Cave No 96, with support from the Dunhuang Academy, I felt very proud," Ki says.

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