Calgary Chinese Orchestra celebrates tradition with small dose of classic rock

The instruments are Chinese. The repertoire ranges from ancient to contemporary classical Chinese, and stretches all the way to spellbinding adaptations of classic rock.

The musical instruments are traditional and Chinese. So why are they playing the Police?

Artistic director Jiajia Li, left, and Yiane Tran are members of the Calgary Chinese Orchestra, which offers a training program through the Mount Royal Conservatory. (Monty Kruger/CBC News)

The instruments are Chinese. The repertoire ranges from ancient to contemporary classical Chinese, and stretches all the way to spellbinding adaptations of classic rock — Every Breath You Take, anyone?

The repertoire isn't the only thing that's cross-cultural about the Calgary Chinese Orchestra, either.

Hear the Calgary Chinese Orchestra play

4 years ago
Duration 2:17
The instruments are Chinese, but the repertoire ranges from ancient to contemporary classical Chinese, and stretches all the way to spellbinding adaptations of classic rock.

"The confusing part is some people think you have to be Chinese to be in the orchestra, but the idea is, we wanted to focus on Chinese music and instruments," said Calgary Chinese Orchestra co-artistic director Jiajia Li. "But you don't actually have to be Chinese!"

Jace Eagle Bear plays the erhu in the Calgary Chinese Orchestra. The two-stringed instrument is also known as a spike fiddle. (Monty Kruger/CBC News)

Playing the classics

The community orchestra, which was founded in 1997, has members ranging in age from 10 to 71, each of whom brings a unique musical history to the organization.

"They are coming from all backgrounds. They don't necessarily have to be musicians — just love music," said Li.

"Some are fulfilling earlier dreams of playing instruments or [else] they just love Chinese music.… It doesn't have to be Chinese music. People's backgrounds are all over the place."

Among those musicians is Jace Eagle Bear, who plays the erhu. It's a two-stringed instrument, also known as a spike fiddle, that has a special musical range, thanks to its unique design elements, says Eagle Bear.

"With violin or cello, the bridge — where the strings make contact — rests on wood, whereas here it rests on snakeskin, which allows for more vibrations, giving it a uniquely special sound unlike any other instrument found in Western cultures," Eagle Bear told CBC News.

"It's known for being able to make various animal calls as well — for example, bird calls," Eagle Bear said. "Or even to the cry of a wolf.

"It's also known for wide range of emotions and expressiveness," he added.

"It can go from happy to what it's best known for, sounding really really sad, mournful, that sort of idea."

Reaching new audiences

What each orchestra member must possess is a desire to expose Chinese classical music to new ears.

"One of the missions of the Calgary Chinese Orchestra is we wanted to promote the Chinese tradition and Chinese traditional music.

"That's why we play some of the old things," Li said.

On the other hand, the organization is also interested in drawing in a new generation of listeners, hence the Chinese orchestral adaptation of Every Breath You Take by the Police.

"We're trying to test the capability of the instruments and the potential of the instruments, what kind of sounds we can actually make in these new arrangements, as well as attract more audiences, especially young people," Li said.

Triggering memories

Over the span of its two decades, the orchestra has discovered audiences across the city for whom their music carries special meaning.

"We often go visit old folks homes to play with the elderly. There was one concert, after the show, all the people sitting in wheelchairs, they came to us, some with tears in their eyes. I think we triggered memories from home. They really loved it," Li said.

Artistic director Jiajia Li of the Calgary Chinese Orchestra. (Monty Kruger/CBC)

Conservatory partnership

For the past year, the Calgary Chinese Orchestra has been offering a youth training program in conjunction with the Mount Royal University Conservatory.

"It's for children from seven to 14 who are interested in Chinese music or learning Chinese instruments — anything you like — and playing in an ensemble setting," said Li.

That led to a new collaboration with Mount Royal's taiko drumming group, which they describe as being "super fun."

The experience with the conservatory, and the taiko drummers, was so positive that Li says it has opened up the orchestra to the possibility of committing to a whole new variety of musical crossovers.

"We felt very included, playing a small genre of music but having huge support from the conservatory, from the program director, from the dean," said Li.

"Everybody [at MRU] is super supportive. So this move means not only we are being in this big family of the conservatory, but also could do more collaborations with other [musical] programs."

With files from Monty Kruger.


Stephen Hunt

Digital Writer

Stephen Hunt is a digital writer at the CBC in Calgary. Email:


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