An interview with Genevieve Lacey and Hao Zheng

Genevieve Lacey, recorders (photo credit: Heide Smith)

Genevieve Lacey, recorders (photo credit: Heide Smith)

Hao Zheng, erhu (photo credit: Tower Liu)

Hao Zheng, erhu (photo credit: Tower Liu)

Recently we sat down with musicians Genevieve Lacey (recorder) and Hao Zheng (erhu), to ask them about their instruments and the works they will be playing in their upcoming concerts with Flinders Quartet.

Hao, tell us about the erhu. What is it made from and how do you play it?

Erhu (⼆胡) is probably the most well known and beloved Chinese string instrument.

Erhu only has two strings however it’s more than capable of producing colourful and articulating sounds, from imitating many natural sounds such as birds and horses, to expressive melancholy tunes and joyful melodies. It can sometimes closely resemble the human voice.

The Erhu is played vertically, usually resting on the musician’s lap. It has no fingerboard so that the player must hold and vibrate the strings by pressing only against the strings themselves. The erhu’s bow is already fixed between the two strings, and the bow hair is either pushed forward or backwards to catch a string. The sound of music resonates from the instrument’s wooden soundbox, which also has a layer of snake skin on it, which vibrates and amplifies the sound.

Genevieve, what do you love most about playing the recorder and what drew you to this family of instruments?

I love its simplicity and its pure, direct sound; the fact that there's no barrier between breath and music. I've been playing the recorder since I was very young. I began because my older brother played, and I wanted to do everything that he did! I've played other instruments seriously too (piano and oboe), but the recorder and I have always had an affinity, an ease in our relationship, so we've been the firmest of friends for decades now.

Hao, when did you start playing the erhu?

My father had an erhu and when I was three or four I would play around with it, even though I didn’t know how to play it!

One afternoon at school a young teacher came to ask “who wants to learn erhu?”. I volunteered and said I wanted to learn. So I started lessons in year one at school. Eventually it was recommended I go to a special school (Nanjing’s Academy of Arts), which was specifically for kids with talent in performing arts.

Through the Academy I toured throughout China and overseas, playing with the ensemble and as a soloist. I also studied in the conservatory attached to Nanjing University of the Arts before I came to Australia in 1995. 

Genevieve, the upcoming concert with Flinders Quartet includes a work for recorder and string quartet: “Song for Neilma” by Peter Sculthorpe. Which instruments from the recorder family are featured in this work and what is the relationship that Sculthorpe cultivates between the recorder and the quartet? What do you enjoy about playing this work?

Song for Neilma is for tenor recorder, the instrument that's closest of the recorder family to the female voice. Mine has a particularly warm, breathy sound — it's really human. The piece was written for the late, beautiful Neilma Gantner, and her spirit is infused in it, as well as the landscape that she called home — Yuin Country, on the south coast of NSW.

I love playing it as it takes me straight there and to her, and I can imagine her looking out onto that country as we play. It uses Sculthorpe's famous seagull sounds in the cello part, and it's a fine example of some of the musical ideas and patterns that he was fascinated with for many years — there's a beautiful viola prelude and postlude; recorder and first violin trade melodies through the piece, and the interweaving relationships between the parts become steadily more layered and complex through the piece.

It was written for me and Flinders, to premiere at Four Winds Festival, back when I was the artistic director there. It's a great privilege to have a piece written for you by such a distinguished composer. 

Hao, the upcoming concert includes a piece called “Horse Race” by Huang Hui Huai, arranged by Julian Yu. How does the piece reflect its title?

This piece has never had this kind of arrangement in its history! This particular piece is well known in the erhu repertoire. It depicts a horse racing festival in a particular region of China, in the Mongolian community. This work is a bit of a show-piece for the erhu!

Genevieve, the program also features a new work by Stuart Greenbaum, "Translations", for the exciting combined ensemble of recorder, erhu and string quartet. Is this your first encounter with the erhu and how are you enjoying the sound world created by this combination of instruments in Stuart's work?

I've been listening to the erhu for a long time, and worked on a project with Chinese musicians for years; but their instruments were guqin and xiao, so this is my first collaboration with an erhu player. It's such an expressive instrument, and our colleague Hao is deeply musical. His playing and his instrument's sound world immediately transport us to China.

Stuart has used our combination of instruments extremely sensitively and intelligently, with a series of movements that allow listeners to get close to all the different qualities and characters of their sounds, hearing solos, duos, and then larger combinations in different constellations.

The titles of the different movements in the work refer to defining moments or significant attributes of the wonderful person for whom it was written - Ziyin Gantner. Ziyin's a joyful, generous, brilliant woman, and the work was a birthday present for her. It's beautiful to be playing two pieces that came into being because of the exceptional spirits of the women who inspired them, and to have had the joy of working closely with their composers as the works were conceived and brought to life. 

Hao, how does Stuart Greenbaum’s work combine the erhu, recorder and string quartet?

All of these instruments sound so harmonious together. Many Chinese instruments are so unique that it is difficult to blend the sound with western instruments, or even with other Chinese instruments. The recorder is really soft and the erhu sounds a little like a cello. To me it is more like a fusion. Translations to me is about how people adapt to a new country and culture. The piece seems to reflect certain memories of China.

In terms of the instruments, I would say it has a texture in which they sound just so nice. It has a well-woven quality. There is one movement for just the recorder and erhu, which is like a conversation between the two instruments.

Genevieve Lacey and Hao Zheng perform with Flinders Quartet this October:

MACEDON MUSIC • Sunday 13 October, 2.30pm SOLD OUT