The New Juilliard Ensemble’s invitation to participate in Carnegie Hall’s Ancient Paths, Modern Voices festival celebrating Chinese culture did not specify the need for an entirely Chinese program, but if we were going to participate, I decided that we might as well really do it! Creating a full concert from the extraordinarily gifted émigrés would be easy. But those composers—especially Chen Yi, Zhou Long, Bright Sheng, Bunching Lam, and Tan Dun—have enjoyed great success here and are generally well known. Younger émigrés such as Du Yun, Kui Dong, and Juilliard graduate Huang Ruo are also moving forward dynamically. A few more Chinese composers living in Europe are not obscure. On the other hand, performing music by composers who live and work in China would be unusual, interesting, and potentially give them good exposure.
Selecting the program for the November 9 Alice Tully Hall concert was another chapter in an ongoing adventure that began more than a decade ago, when the Asian Cultural Council (A.C.C.), a New York foundation, invited me to meet Jia Daqun, a composer teaching at Sichuan Conservatory in Chengdu. As a result, I included his Intonation on the N.J.E.’s opening concert of 1996. Seeing that its phone call had paid off, A.C.C. continues to contact me whenever Asian composers turn up in New York, and I have gotten to see a lot of fine music. The next call concerned Guo Wenjing, from Beijing, a member of the illustrious post-Cultural Revolution composition class of 1978 at the Beijing Central Conservatory that spawned many of the composer-émigrés named in the first paragraph. In 1998 Guo was one of a few of that class who had remained in China. Fortunately for him, he had a European publisher. But his music was unknown in the United States. Meeting him led to N.J.E. giving the U.S. premieres of his Inscriptions on Bone (for female voice and ensemble) in 1998 and his Concertino for Cello and Chamber Orchestra in 2001.
For the performance of Inscriptions on Bone, Guo urged me to use his schoolmate Liu Sola—then living in New York City—as soloist. When we met for lunch her energy astounded me. A warm and friendly woman with many talents, she had endless ideas about everything. Liu Sola—her father named her after the solmization syllables “sol” and “la”—was China’s first female rock star after the Cultural Revolution, and is an active composer, a marvelous novelist, and an extremely gifted painter. Her performance of Guo’s piece was superb. Then I asked her to write a piece for the New Juilliard Ensemble, which we premiered in February 1999. She and her husband subsequently returned to Beijing.
The next chapter took place in 2004 when Jia Daqun asked for my help with a domestic problem. His daughter had been accepted to the Curtis Institute but because she was only 15, Mrs. Jia had to accompany her, and Jia Daqun, now teaching in Shanghai, missed them terribly. He wanted to apply to the A.C.C. for a grant to bring him to Philadelphia for part of the year, but needed a project for the application. Would I, he asked, allow him to write a piece for N.J.E. as his project? I was honored and delighted—and the timing was perfect. The January 2006 Focus Festival was to celebrate Juilliard’s centennial (2005-06) with six concerts of music completed in 2005. His new piece was perfect for N.J.E.’s opening concert.
Jia Daqun, Guo Wenjing, and Liu Sola were therefore obvious candidates for the upcoming concert; Jia’s and Liu’s pieces had been written for us and deserved revivals. But that was barely half a program. More music was needed. As it happened, Ye Xiaogang, another classmate of the older group, greatly admired but rarely heard in the West, was coming to New York and wanted to discuss the forthcoming participation of Continuum—the professional ensemble I co-direct with Cheryl Seltzer—in the May 2009 Beijing Modern Festival. Over coffee I mentioned the November 9 concert. I only knew of his Nine Horses and wondered what else he had. He immediately offered to write a piece. We also agreed that in Beijing I would see music by young composers and select something for the New York program.
It was now nearly May 10. Everything was moving forward for Continuum’s appearance in Beijing Modern. Then a surprise e-mail informed us that the Chinese government had ordered anyone suspected of having been exposed to swine flu to be isolated. Since the festival did not have any facilities for isolation, all foreign guests were told not to come. We were disappointed, and it also wrecked my plan to see more scores in Beijing. Ye Xiaogang, however, had already approached a particularly talented student, Li Shaosheng, suggesting he write a piece for N.J.E., and Ye continued working on his piece. However, when I later learned that Ye is a busy man as vice president of the Beijing Central Conservatory and a member of the Chinese Parliament, I became uneasy. His piece was promised for September 15, which was already late. Sure enough, Parliament had a rush of business and his piece was behind schedule. He will complete it, but not in time for November 9. We’ll play his Nine Horses instead. Li Shaosheng, unburdened by affairs of state, e-mailed his piece, Skyline on the Moon, on time. It looks extremely good.
The demise of Ye Xiaogang’s piece left a hole in the program, however; Nine Horses is good but short. And it was late September. A quick hunt was urgent. When I happened to mention the situation to Chuan Qin, a student in our D.M.A. program, he told me about Zhu Jian-er, an 82-year-old Shanghai composer whose music he found very powerful. One does not expect modernism from that generation of Chinese, but I asked Chuan Qin to contact Zhu, which he did immediately. Zhu’s daughter, he learned, lives in Atlanta and has copies of her father’s music. She sent me a handsomely-produced boxed set of scores and CDs of his 10 symphonies. The fourth symphony, for solo Chinese flute (dizi) and 22 strings, immediately looked right. (The others are for large orchestra.) But before committing to it, I needed to find a bamboo flute player. Fortunately New York, as they say, has everything you want and everything you don’t want. Among the desirable everythings are at least two excellent dizi players. Our soloist will be Chen Tao, who was recommended by Chen Yi. (No relation; another schoolmate.) The only problem is that the program is now too long. But why worry! I will just breathe a sigh of relief when the parts for Zhu’s Symphony No. 4 arrive from Shanghai. And we’ll have three generations of Chinese composers and a lot of really beautiful music.