Friday August 3, 2012 | 2 a.m
Balancing the base of the morin khuur between his knees, Las Vegas-based instrumentalist Hong Wang uses his right hand to slide a bow smoothly over the instrument. The fingers of Wang’s left hand slide between the two strings in a flurry of movement as his head sways to the soft melody.
The morin khuur is a Mongolian instrument that resembles a banjo, plays like a violin, and produces a melody that resembles that of a cello.
For Wang, 53, Chinese folk music and the instruments used to play it have become a way of life. He formed a Chinese ensemble in California, toured Europe, and performed this summer at the Lincoln Center Festival in New York and the MGM Grand in Las Vegas.
His music, with its dark melody evoking life in China’s rustic past, is perhaps recognizable by those under 20 who have watched “The Legend of Korra” and “Kung Fu Panda” on television.
Wang is a calm and modest man whose eyes light up when he talks about music. Without it, he says, life would be boring.
“You can use words to express thoughts, but thanks to music I can do the same,” he said.
He ignores the compliments on his talent, instead pointing to other musicians, such as Yo-Yo Ma. But he recognizes that there are few musicians in the world like him who can play both wind and wind instruments. Chinese strings.
Wang grew up in China playing Peking Opera as a child. In high school, he composed his own music. He chose music in part to avoid being sent to work in the countryside, but he came to love art.
When China opened its universities to the masses in the late 1970s, Wang had to wait another year because, he said, his family background was not considered politically pure enough. He eventually rose through the ranks to a teaching post at the Jiangsu Province Institute of the Arts, collecting and researching Chinese folk music.
In 1995, he immigrated to the United States in search of opportunities to present his craft. He moved to San Francisco, where he co-founded the Chinese performance group Melody of China.
Ten years later, he returned to China to conduct field research to preserve the music of dying folk musicians. He collected over 300 songs through interviews with folk musicians, some so old that they died within months of Wang’s visit. During the Cultural Revolution, many musicians were purged by the Communist regime. The recordings of old songs have been destroyed and kept only by memory.
“Tradition is the most useful source for creative music,” Wang said. “The things we do now are based on tradition. … If we don’t have a past, we don’t have a future.
In 2008, Wang joined the flow of immigrants settling in Las Vegas. He laughs and says that when he arrived his friends asked him why he would want to move to the desert. His bamboo flutes cracked in the Nevada heat, forcing him to switch to wooden flutes.
But Wang said he reveled in the excitement of the 24/7 Las Vegas pace and world-famous entertainment culture. In addition, few people in Las Vegas had mastered its niche. Better yet, he said, the move at least allowed him to temporarily escape Los Angeles traffic.
In 2010, Wang teamed up with the Las Vegas Philharmonic Orchestra to create a concert, but its main sponsor died and the funding dried up. The concert was canceled.
Undeterred, Wang this year formed the first Chinese ensemble in Las Vegas, the Beijing Trio. For three months, they performed at the Bellagio Conservatory, introducing visitors to Chinese folk music and attracting spectators from all walks of life and ethnicities, some standing for over an hour listening.
Today, Wang sells hard-to-find Chinese musical instruments and is the executive director of the Sunway Universal Foundation, which seeks to promote and secure funding for emerging Chinese artists.
Composer Albert Chang first met Wang when he called on Chang in Los Angeles to deliver Chinese instruments. Chang has since collaborated with Wang on a number of compositions.
Chang describes Wang as a “down to earth type”.
“He understands that being a musician can be tough work, but he’s always an upbeat person who brings a lot of positive energy,” Chang said.
Every two weeks, Wang travels to Los Angeles to record music composed for Nickelodeon.
“It was an incredible education working with Hong,” said Jeremy Zuckerman, an Emmy-winning songwriter who has collaborated with Wang on the music for more than 50 episodes of “Kung Fu Panda” and “The Legend of Korra”.
Wang will add few stylistic embellishments to music that a Western composer cannot write, Zuckerman said. It’s these articulations that bring music to life and add depth, Zuckerman said.
For Wang, the musical style is not defined by his instruments but by his melody. He would like to see more community events in Las Vegas and is working to organize a music festival featuring a fusion of Western and Chinese music. His hope is to bring together young musicians to create music that everyone can relate to and bridge the cultural divide.
Wang will be in the orchestra playing the erhu, a two-string violin, this evening at the MGM Grand Conference Center during the Sunway Universal Foundation’s tribute to Pulitzer Prize-winning composer Zhou Long. And in January, Wang will join the Beijing Trio performing for the Las Vegas Arts Council’s Downtown Cultural Series.