Thursday, February 5, 2004

Concerto celebrates Chinese sounds

Traditional instrument, ancient poem inspire composer

By Janelle Gelfand
The Cincinnati Enquirer

Gao Ping remembers two things about celebrating Chinese New Year as a boy in Chengdu, Szechwan Province, China.

"Firecrackers and food - a lot of it," says Ping, a composer and recent graduate of the University of Cincinnati College-Conservatory of Music. "It's a two-week celebration; a big family time."

To help Cincinnati toast the Year of the Monkey (4701), Gao, 33, has written a Concerto for Violin and Pipa (a Chinese lute). His piece will receive its world premiere at the Greater Cincinnati Chinese Music Society's Chinese New Year Concert, Saturday in Corbett Auditorium.

It is the first commission by the society, which promotes the study of Chinese music through grants and scholarships.

Tan Dun's Oscar-winning film score to Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, Bright Sheng's operas such as Madame Mao and Yo-Yo Ma's Silk Road Project have put Chinese music in the public eye.

In the second wave

The first Chinese composers to come the United States in the '80s were pioneers. Their music is not only a fusion of East and West, but reflects the hard times they endured during the Cultural Revolution, Mao's reign of terror that banned Western culture (1966-76).

Today, Gao is one of a new generation of composers coming out of China.

"Because of their human experience, they had a drive to prove themselves, to get out of their situation," Gao says about his older colleagues. "You can tell if you listen to Chinese composers that there is something we share. But it's a different generation now. All the talent has been waiting to explode."

For his new piece, Gao was inspired by a 1,200-year-old poem from the T'ang Dynasty. The poem, a kind of "drama in sound," describes the sound of the pipa as pearls dropping onto a plate.

He decided to have a violin symbolize the voice of the poet, which carries on a kind of "spiritual dialogue" with the pipa player. It may be the first piece ever written for this combination.

Like the violin, the pipa can produce wide-ranging sounds. The folk instrument is traditionally used for depicting ancient narrative pieces, epics that have been passed down for hundreds - perhaps thousands - of years. It conjures ancient tales of warriors and lovers, and of life and death in Chinese provinces.

"It's very expressive. And it's extremely virtuosic," Gao says. "That's part of the point, just to share virtuosity and make all those incredible sounds ... ."

Gao's parents suffered during the Cultural Revolution. Like many who practiced Western-style culture, his father, composer Gao Wei-Jie, was imprisoned before Ping was born.

Composer and pianist

From early childhood, Gao wanted to be a composer. He began improvising on the piano at age 9. But his father, now on the faculty at the University of Beijing, and mother, a Western-trained singer, discouraged their son, saying such a career would be too difficult in China. They told him to become a concert pianist, instead.

Gao decided to become both.

His most important mentors are his father, and composer Qu Xiao Song, whose music will be played Saturday by the Percussion Group Cincinnati. But eager not to be stereotyped, he feels he has many other influences, from the ancient music of the pipa to new trends in the United States.

"In the long run, if your music is good, people should not judge you by being Chinese," he says.


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