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Composer Portraits: Bright Sheng

This season Miller Theatre celebrates the 20th Anniversary of Composer Portraits. Writer Lara Pellegrinelli has been commissioned to create a snapshot of each composer in words through an exploration of their experiences of community, viewed through the prism of new music. 

“I feel 100% Chinese and 100% American. I used to say that I have spent half my life in China and half in the U.S., but now I’ve passed the tipping point. At this moment, I think I’m prouder to be an American because of our melting pot of cultures." —Bright Sheng

Bright Sheng composes music full of lyrical impulses and dramatic flair. In H’un, In Memoriam 1966-76 (1988), a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize, Sheng deploys the orchestra in a tense, bone-rattling remembrance of China’s Cultural Revolution. In Three Songs for Cello and Pipa (1999), commissioned to honor visiting Chinese Premier Zhu Rongji at a White House state dinner under President Clinton, he juxtaposes vibrant tunes with tiptoeing endearments and sure-footed dance rhythms. Dream of the Red Chamber (2016), an opera created with co-librettist David Henry Hwang (M. Butterfly), tells a tragic love story from China’s most famous novel, with rapturous instrumentation and arching vocal lines.

Yet, when Sheng speaks about his approach to music-making, he is direct and to the point. “This is what I tell my students: You are asking busy people to buy tickets, dress up, hire babysitters, and find parking; to sit in uncomfortable seats, and stay quiet,” he spells out in no uncertain terms. “On top of that, you are asking for their absolute attention during the ten-minute piece you have written. You had better do something worth their while.”

Bright Sheng

Photo by Angelo Merendino    

Sheng, who will celebrate his 64th birthday on December 6, has been practicing what he preaches for the better part of four decades. Presently the Leonard Bernstein Distinguished University Professor of Music at the University of Michigan, Sheng has been a leader in bridging the musical traditions of his native China with European art music and its American descendants, exploring Eastern themes within the context of Western classical musical forms.

On that path, he has received a MacArthur Fellowship, as well as awards from the National Endowment for the Arts and the Guggenheim, Jerome, Naumberg, and Rockefeller Foundations. He served as the artistic director for Yo-Yo Ma’s Silk Road Project (1998–2003), and composed music for the opening of the 2008 Olympic Games in Beijing. He was appointed composer-in-residence at the New York City Ballet (the first to hold such a distinction) and has also held residencies at the Lyric Opera of Chicago, numerous festivals, and educational institutions. His music has been widely performed and recorded, in part through his longstanding relationships with the New York Philharmonic, Shanghai Symphony Orchestra, Singapore Symphony Orchestra, Shanghai Quartet, Peter Serkin, Yo-Yo Ma, and David Shifrin, to name just a few.

In addition to the academic position he holds in Michigan, Sheng is also the Anna Pao and Helmut Sohmen Professor-at-Large at Hong Kong University of Science and Technology (HKUST). In 2011, he founded the festival The Intimacy of Creativity in collaboration with the Hong Kong Philharmonic and Hong Kong Arts Festival. Last spring, Curtis 20/21, the Curtis Institute’s new-music ensemble led by composer David Serkin Ludwig, and Jennifer Higdon, Curtis’s Milton L. Rock Chair of Composition, joined him there.

“One of the problems since the end of last century is that most composers don’t perform and most performers don’t compose,” says Sheng, someone who has maintained an active career as both a conductor and a concert pianist. “In Hong Kong, we invite composers and performers to get together and workshop pieces, to rehearse, revise, perform, and open discussion with an audience over the course of a whole week.”

This season, Sheng is the Composer-in-Residence with Curtis 20/21. He is working with them in a similar fashion, readying the ensemble to perform selections representative of his compositional language here at Miller Theatre, and at Curtis. His residency is linked to a yearlong, school-wide exploration, “China and Its Musical Traditions.” In addition, Sheng will compose a viola concerto for Curtis Institute President Roberto Díaz—a co-commission with the Suzhou Symphony Orchestra and Konzerthausorchester Berlin—to be premiered at the Kimmel Center in October 2020.

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Sheng’s pragmatism evolved from the circumstances he navigated as a migrant, someone who was forcibly uprooted once within his own country, and then a second time to join a diaspora overseas in the U.S.

Born in 1955, he came from what he describes as a refined middle-class family in Shanghai, a cosmopolitan city with its share of European colonial heritage. His father was a doctor, who spoke English, and his mother was an engineer. Their home had a piano, considered a luxury at the time—one that would be seized by the Red Guards. His mother taught him to play when he was young and, later, a piano tutor came to the house to instruct him in performing Bach, Mozart, and Beethoven. His father sang Chinese opera and played jinghu, the two-stringed fiddle used in Beijing opera.

Had Sheng not come of age during the calamitous decade of the Cultural Revolution, he would likely have followed one of their professions. Instead, at age 15, he was sent to Qinghai Province—a place so cold and isolated that he likens it to Siberia—to be “re-educated.”

The history of the region, which is located on the Tibetan plateau, is a complex mix of migration and military conquest; the province was established with the founding of the People’s Republic of China in 1950. The majority of the population during Sheng’s assignment consisted of ethnic Tibetans, though dozens of other minorities were present as well, which still holds true today.

Frankly, Sheng was fortunate simply to have escaped manual labor. No one practiced Western classical music, so he continued his education on his own, and in his employment as a pianist and percussionist with the provincial music and dance theater. As a cultured kid from the big city, he initially showed no interest in the local folk-music traditions. But over time, his appreciation grew, and ultimately such traditions would exert a major influence in his future work.

“I hated everything about the Cultural Revolution,” Sheng admits. “But, on the other hand, if it wasn’t for the Cultural Revolution, I probably would not be a musician and would not have as rich a life as I have now. Every coin has two sides.”

He was accepted at the Shanghai Conservatory of Music when it reopened in 1978 and soaked up a curriculum that provided training in European classical music, Chinese classical music, and Chinese folk traditions. He was planning to follow his parents to the United States to continue his studies after he completed his degree, but, in the meantime, his father had encountered the prominent artist manager Harold Shaw at a reception. Shaw opined that a young Chinese composer had “no chance” in the U.S., prompting Sheng’s father to compose a ten-page letter that cast doubt on his son’s desired career path.

“My father essentially wrote, ‘America is a great country, but a pragmatic country,’” Sheng remembers. “‘They need people to make Chinese food and fix their cars. They don't need another composer. Even American composers are having a hard time trying to make careers for themselves, let alone somebody from a different background. Please think about this.’”

“I hated everything about the Cultural Revolution,” Sheng admits. “But, on the other hand, if it wasn’t for the Cultural Revolution, I probably would not be a musician and would not have as rich a life as I have now. Every coin has two sides.”

Sheng proved this prediction spectacularly wrong. Emigrating in 1982, he studied further in the Master’s Program at Queens College. He was then recruited for the doctoral program here at Columbia University through composer and Vice Dean of the School for the Arts Chou Wen-chung (1923-2019); Chou’s efforts created a cohort of young Chinese and Chinese American composers, including Tan Dun, Chen Yi, Zhou Long, and Ge Gan-ru. Although their musical output was diverse, together, they formed a distinguished current within American concert music, with Tan Dun attaining the greatest visibility for his Oscar-winning score to Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon (2001).

Chou, who wrote strident, modern music, was sometimes critical of his students, yet he understood well the foundation of their populism. As he told The New York Times in 2001: “They are talented and well trained. Most happened to be in the first [conservatory] class after the Cultural Revolution, when only the best could get in… Since 1949, everybody in China has been conscious of what it takes to interact with the masses. Everyone seems instinctively to know how to reach out to the community.”

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Sheng expresses his own views on community in the same straightforward language with which he advises his students.

“I feel 100% Chinese and 100% American,” he asserts. “I used to say that I have spent half my life in China and half in the U.S., but now I’ve passed the tipping point. At this moment, I think I’m prouder to be an American because of our melting pot of cultures. How do you define American culture? Or American music? What’s great about it is that it doesn’t have a specific agenda. Anything goes.

“What is the artist’s responsibility to the society?” he continues. “That’s what you’re talking about when you use the word community—you’re asking the society to support you. How do you repay this favor? What is it that you do? It took me years to answer that question for myself.”

Sheng’s achievements highlight some of the ways in which immigrants have enriched American culture, and the benefits of our openness. He found affirmation of these values in his work with Leonard Bernstein, whom Sheng met while studying at Tanglewood. Sheng studied composition and conducting privately under Bernstein, and worked as his assistant until the famous maestro died in 1990. It was a quietly scathing comment that Bernstein wrote on the cover of Sheng’s score for Two Poems from the Sung Dynasty (1985) that challenged the young composer to think of a community of listeners, and still gives him pause for thought: For whom is it written?

Bernstein’s works, indebted to jazz, Latin music, and Jewish traditions, exemplified that melting pot, acting as symbols of a uniquely American synthesis—and a growing acceptance of musical elements outside the white mainstream, when refashioned by a white composer. Like Bernstein, Sheng often draws on sources particular to the land of his birth and its minorities, yet they serve the creation of music that aspires to universality. “To me,” he says, “a great artwork should transcend its cultural background.”

His compositions should be seen as products of his Chinese education—and his re-education—as much as they fit within his American context. China is often viewed by westerners as a monolith, yet it contains a wealth of ethnic groups with their own rich traditions. Under the banner of nationalism, Mao Tse Tung considered all of these peoples “Chinese,” their music belonging to a collective Chinese heritage—a view reflecting some of China’s earliest musical treatises, says Sheng. At the conservatory in Shanghai in the 1970s and ’80s—as well as today—Mikhail Glinka, Pyotr Il'yich Tchaikovsky, and Russia’s “Mighty Five” (César Cui, Aleksandr Borodin, Mily Balakirev, Modest Mussorgsky, and Nikolay Rimsky-Korsakov) provided ready models for how to shape those folk materials into “art music.”

Sheng’s time in Qinghai was life-changing. Although “everyone was hungry, even myself,” he says, “the people still sang and danced as a way of life.” The music on tonight’s program uses some of these experiences as touchstones, with three works that contain ties to his youth. Sheng’s titles, like those of classical Chinese works, offer insights into the character of the pieces.

String Quartet #4 "Silent Temple" (2000)

In the early 1970s, Sheng visited Ta’er, a vast 400-year-old Buddhist temple complex outside of Xining, the capital of Qinghai province, where he was then living. Ta’er, also known as Kumbum Monastery, is second only to Lhasa as a site of pilgrimage and a center of Tibetan Buddhist teaching. (Today, the 8th Arjia Rinpoche, who defected to the U.S. in 1998, leads an exile campus in Bloomington, Indiana.)

“As all religious activities were completely forbidden at the time of the Cultural Revolution,” writes Sheng in his composer’s note to the score, “the temple, renowned among the Buddhist community all over the world, was unattended and on the brink of turning into a ruin.

“The most striking and powerful memory I had for the visit was that, in spite of the appalling condition of the temple, it was still a grandiose and magnificent structure. And the fact that it was located in the snowy mountainous ranges added to its dignity and glory. Standing in the middle of the courtyard, I could almost hear the praying and the chanting of the monks, as well as the violence committed to the temple and the monks by the ‘Red Guards.’

“To this day, the memories of the visit remain vivid. And I use them almost randomly as the basic images of the composition. As a result, the work has four short and seemingly unrelated movements, which should be performed without pause.”

Clearwater Rhapsody (2018)

The inspirations behind Clearwater Rhapsody were twofold: a variation on the piano trio’s traditional instrumentation and a view of Hong Kong’s impressive Clearwater Bay.

The work was commissioned by the virtuoso ensemble 6-wire—named for the total number of strings on the Chinese erhu and Western violin, here joined by piano to form an unconventional trio. “The erhu (literally, two-string fiddle) was originally brought into China from Central Asia through the Silk Road,” explains Sheng, who had never written a piece featuring the instrument before. “Across centuries, not only has it authenticated a distinctive Chinese character, but also a soloistic nature, especially when performed with a Western music ensemble.” 6-wire’s erhu player, Cathy Yang, is featured in this performance, and Sheng will perform on piano.

Sheng’s hilltop office at HKUST, where he composes each spring and runs his festival, offers what he describes as a breathtaking view of Clearwater Bay and its many islands. “Looking over this part of the Pacific Ocean,” he says, “I have always marveled at its beauty and serenity, attained within only a few miles from the business districts of Hong Kong—one of the most exciting metropolises in the world. This contrast and co-existence of opposite characters was very much in my mind when I conceived Clearwater Rhapsody.” Although the range of the violin and erhu overlap—the erhu is tuned to the same pitches as the violin’s middle strings, D and A—the piece highlights the instruments’ striking differences in tone color.

Dance Capriccio (2011)

Written for piano plus string quartet, Dance Capriccio was inspired by the dance music of the Sherpa people, a small ethnic group living in the high mountains of the Himalayas on the border of Nepal and Tibet. As Sheng explains, “In the Tibetan language, Sherpa means ‘people of the east,’ as it is believed Sherpa moved from eastern Tibet to their current site centuries ago. Sherpa are regarded as excellent mountaineers and guides for expeditions in the Himalayas, especially to climb Mount Everest.”

Sheng first encountered Sherpa folk traditions while living in Qinghai, but explored the music further through recordings he collected, describing it as “similar to Tibetan, but with its distinctive characters and twists of melodic turns. Like the Tibetans, Sherpa people love to dance, and, along with love songs and drinking songs, dance music is an important genre.” Dance Capriccio does not include any direct quotations from Sherpa folk music, but borrows from its tonalities and rhythms, depicting the character of various Sherpa dances within the western form of piano quintet.

Deep Red (2014)

Deep Red, which Sheng will conduct, is an arrangement for chamber ensemble of his marimba concerto, Colors of Crimson. The concerto, in which Sheng attempts to achieve the deep red sound he likens to the color of the marimba’s wooden bars, was written for the eminent percussionist Evelyn Glennie.

“She told me that it was always the orchestra that had the benefit of carrying the emotions in percussion concertos. I suggested we do a piece for marimba. But she also said that the sound of marimba is always woody. I wondered how to make it warmer.” Sheng found his solution in blending its colors with winds, crotales, and resonant timpani.

The thematic material of the work comes from the reconstruction of a love song that Sheng wrote when he was a teenager living in Qinghai, inspired by local folk music.

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Sheng speaks with authority on the subject of writing music with passion, offering his listeners compositions that also convey a clear sense of his identity—which is at once Chinese and American. The United States may be a pragmatic country, as Sheng’s father once warned, yet among its needs are composers who understand how to move their diverse communities of listeners, Sheng would argue.

“When I wrote my opera Dream of the Red Chamber, I wanted to move someone in the audience to tears each and every night,” says Sheng. “You need to be able to reach the audience. You have to touch them emotionally. Down into their bones. Touch their nerves. Then you know you did your job.”


Lara Pellegrinelli is a scholar and a journalist, who contributes to NPR and The New York Times. She teaches at The New School and Bard’s Microcollege at Brooklyn Public Library.

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