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Bridging Traditions with Bright Sheng

Melissa Smey

Miller Theatre commissioned writer Lara Pellegrinelli to create the program notes for the 20th year of Composer Portraits as well as a series of Q&As with Executive Director Melissa Smey. Here is the fourth installment, centering around our upcoming Portrait featuring the music of Bright Sheng.

Q. Bright Sheng has had a long and distinguished career as a composer, conductor, and pianist. Do you remember when you first met him?

A. I interviewed him what now seems like ages ago, back in 2010 for a composer’s symposium at the Philadelphia New Music Project. He and Bernard Rands were the panelists, the idea being that both composers were born overseas and could speak to the profound influence that cross-cultural encounters were having on the music of the United States. It was very interesting. I was able to program a Bernard Rands Composer Portrait in 2014, and I’m very excited to get to do one with Bright Sheng now.

This Portrait is being presented in collaboration with the Curtis Institute and their contemporary music ensemble, Curtis 20/21. I’ve been working with their director David Ludwig for many years. The ensemble has a composer-in-residence there every fall. We first worked together when they had Joan Tower in 2011, and again with Chen Yi in 2017. We’ve also done some concerts with them on our Pop-Up series. And now Bright Sheng will have that residency, so he’ll be performing here with them—conducting Deep Red, an arrangement of his marimba concerto for chamber ensemble, and playing piano in Clearwater Rhapsody, a piano quartet whose unusual instrumentation includes the two-stringed Chinese erhu.


Photo by Angelo Merendino for Miller Theatre

Q. Sheng has received a MacArthur Fellowship, and is the Leonard Bernstein Distinguished University Professor of Composition at the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor, a title that is no coincidence given that he was one of Bernstein’s students. What should Miller audiences know about Sheng’s significance as a composer?

A. I try to allow the works to speak for themselves, or to give the composer an opportunity to talk about their music in their own words. That's why I always provide the platform for an onstage discussion during Portrait concerts. What I can say is that Bright was born in China, but has spent much of his life in the United States. I think of him as a composer whose work transcends both of these places. He is someone who bridges traditions, with music that is often highly dramatic in nature. In this program, he is also looking back on some of his formative experiences in Tibet during the Cultural Revolution, which inspired his String Quartet No. 4 “Silent Temple.”

It isn’t entirely a coincidence that Bright is also a Columbia alum, having completed his D.M.A. in the Department of Music which has a world-class composition program. Featuring a member of the Columbia music community in each season’s programming is a quiet aspect of the programming that I do. Bright was part of a cohort of incredibly gifted Chinese-born composers including Tan Dun and Zhou Long, who were recruited here through the efforts of former Vice Dean of the School of the Arts Chou Wen-chung (1923-2019). A student of Edgard Varèse, Chou was a fascinating figure, who found ways to integrate eastern and western traditions and helped establish cultural relations with China in the 1970s through the U.S.-China Arts Exchange. He was hugely influential.

Q. The Curtis Institute is located in Philadelphia. Does Curtis 20/21 often get to perform in New York City?

A. No, and that’s another aspect of this concert of which I’m proud—it’s important for Curtis ensembles to have an outlet in New York City. It's been a really fruitful partnership for all of these many years. David Ludwig is a dedicated and tireless champion of the work of living composers. It’s deeply meaningful that they invite a composer to come every year, and to be in residence, working with the musicians so that they have a firsthand understanding of performance practice. It resonates with what we do here.

Photo of Melissa Smey by Kyle Dorosz for Miller Theatre.

Related Composer Portrait posts:

20 Years of Composer Portraits and 10 Years as Executive Director

8 Questions to Executive Director Melissa Smey About Composer Portraits

Pushing Boundaries with Annea Lockwood

The Path to Vijay Iyer's Composer Portrait

Melissa Smey on Anthony Braxton at 75

Cracking the Code: David T. Little 

How Tyshawn Sorey’s Portrait Came About 

Why is John Zorn so important?

More People Need to Know About Wang Lu

Building the Unique Universe of Du Yun's Composer Portrait

Bringing Kate Soper’s IPSA DIXIT to Miller