The Seattle Chinese Orchestra, founded and directed by Warren Chang, makes an appearance in Town Hall Seattle's Global Rhythms series on April 20.

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On a quiet side street of Beacon Hill, the studio of Warren Chang — founder and director of the Seattle Chinese Orchestra — is filled with instruments unfamiliar to most Westerners.

There’s a yangqin, a hammered dulcimer also known as a “Chinese piano,” in one corner. A dozen or more zitherlike guzheng are arrayed nearby. At the back of the room, a whole battery of Chinese percussion instruments sits ready to come to thunderous life.

Chang’s own erhu — a two-string instrument played with the bow permanently hooked between its strings — has a quieter, more melancholy, distinctively Chinese air.

Together, they create sounds unlike any Western orchestra’s — sounds that Chang and the SCO have been bringing to Seattle for more than 25 years.

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The SCO, which plays at Town Hall Seattle’s Global Rhythms series on Friday, consists of professional and amateur musicians between the ages of 12 and 72 dedicated to preserving traditional Chinese classical music while also building a tuneful bridge between contrasting musical cultures.

“East meets West is always my goal,” Chang said in a recent interview.

Born in 1956 in Shanghai, Chang first encountered the erhu when he was 5 and began his studies in 1963, when he was 7. Dates are important here: 1966 marked the beginning of China’s Cultural Revolution, with its campaigns against intellectuals, who were forced to do farm labor. It didn’t matter how good you were at your studies, Chang recalls. Once class was over, you had to go to the fields.

“The only exception was if you were a musician,” he explains. “Then you could stay in the city. It encouraged a lot of parents to have their kids learn Chinese music.” Western music was banned.

Chang himself was gifted enough to become a professional erhu player with the Shanghai National Symphony Orchestra by the time he was 16.

“We played very often for government officials,” he recalls. “After the performance, they always liked to come up to the stage, shaking hands and briefly talking with all the performers.”

At one such concert, an American cultural attaché in Shanghai invited Chang to perform in the U.S., leading to his arrival in Seattle in 1982. Chang made it his mission to introduce Westerners to Chinese music, giving free performances in schools, retirement homes and other modest venues.

Enthusiastic listeners urged him to put together a more formal concert, so in late 1982, he put on a show with local amateur musicians — and got more of a crowd than he ever expected.

“It was a funny story,” he says.

At the time, there was a well-known local judge named Warren Chan, and people came thinking the good judge was about to reveal some musical talents he’d kept quiet for years.

“They found out it wasn’t him,” Chang chuckles. “But people really enjoyed it.”

Chang also made a lasting connection with Cornish College of the Arts through Roger Nelson, now a professor there. Nelson recalls picking up the music-department’s office phone in early 1983 and hearing someone ask in thickly accented English if he could recommend a pianist.

“I said: ‘Gee, I’m a pianist’ — and it started from there.”

The Seattle Chinese Orchestra itself started taking shape in 1986. Nelson conducted it a few times in the 1990s, and for the last seven years he’s been SCO’s full-time conductor.

While the SCO numbered roughly 20 players at the start, it now boasts 62 musicians, including a recently added cello section. Not all of the players are of ethnic Chinese background. One of the erhu players is from Texas and is majoring in the instrument at Cornish under Chang’s guidance. Other players are drawn from the Washington Chinese Youth Orchestra, founded by Chang and his wife in 1993, for players age 4 to 18.

The oldest pieces in SCO’s repertoire are “national folk songs” dating from 6,000 or 7,000 years ago. The newest pieces, while still in China’s traditional pentatonic (five-tone) scale, reflect Western influences that came into play in China in the early 20th century. Friday’s concert will open with a drum ensemble and features pieces for solo players, a trio and larger groups.

Few if any orchestras in the U.S., Nelson says, are doing anything similar: “It’s largely due to Warren’s tenacity and determination … and I’m happy to be a part of it.”

Michael Upchurch:

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