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Chinese composer visiting Pitt bears witness to history

Thursday, March 23, 2000

By Andrew Druckenbrod, Post-Gazette Classical Music Writer

Like many Chinese-born artists of his generation, composer Bright Sheng was deeply influenced, perhaps even scarred, by the country he once called home. Repressed by Maoist policies and the Cultural Revolution, the Shanghai-born Sheng, 44, eventually left in 1982 to live in New York. Now one of America's most prominent composers, he sheds light on a dark chapter of human history in his powerful music.

Schedule of Sheng events

There are many events open to the public -- some free -- as part of the Pittsburgh Chamber Music Society's inaugural composer residency featuring Bright Sheng. Call 412-624-4129 for more information.

Sheng Lecture: "China and Its New Music"
Frick Fine Arts Auditorium, Oakland
When: 7 p.m. today. Free.

Sheng Lecture: "Folk Music and the Composer"
Music Building, University of Pittsburgh, Oakland
When: 4 p.m. tomorrow. Free.

Performance: Takacs Quartet
Carnegie Music Hall, Oakland.
When: 8 p.m. Monday. $15-$30.
Featuring: Pre-concert lecture at 7 p.m. followed at 7:40 by City Music Center musicians performing Sheng's "Two Chinese Folk Songs" in the Grand Foyer, Carnegie Music Hall.


Orchestral pieces "H'un (Lacerations): In Memoriam 1966-76" and "China Dreams," and a new opera are just some of his output that investigates the Cultural Revolution. These and other works are suffused with heartfelt concern, anger and sadness about China's history and present situation.

"There are things that are deep in my heart that I just had to write," he says. "When I got the commission [for "H'un (Lacerations)"], I immediately thought I want to write something about the Cultural Revolution. It wasn't that I wanted to do it because I hated the Cultural Revolution -- maybe that -- but mainly it was because I had something inside me that I wanted to get out."

Over the next five days, Sheng will have several platforms upon which to address the subject and other aspects of his music when he becomes the focus of a series of talks and performances presented by the Pittsburgh Chamber Music Society. It's the first time in the group's history that it has sponsored a composer residency. Sheng will perform and lecture, and his music also will be performed by others, highlighted by a concert by the Takacs Quartet.

It was a natural fit to organize the residency around Takacs. Sheng has an extended history with the quartet and it commissioned the work by Sheng that will be performed on its program, his String Quartet No. 3. The other works are Beethoven's String Quartet, Op. 18 No. 6, and Dvorak's String Quartet No. 12, "The American."

"In 1991, when I was composer in residence at Chicago Lyric Opera, [Takacs] were invited by an organization in Chicago to play all six Bela Bartok quartets," Sheng says. "They had an hour break in between and invited me to give a talk on Bartok and his string quartets."

The members of the group and Sheng hit it off. Both harbor a deep appreciation for the music of Bartok, Sheng using Bartok's principals of folk song incorporation in his own writing. The relationship paid further dividends. Despite the fact that Takacs doesn't play much new music (its Bartok specialty can hardly be considered such), the ensemble commissioned Sheng's String Quartet No. 3. That piece hearkens to Sheng's forced "re-education" in the countryside during the Cultural Revolution.

"It was inspired by the memory of a Tibetan folk dance which I came across about 25 years ago when I was living in Qing Hai, the province on the border between China and Tibet," he explains in his liner notes.

Finished in 1993, it's a short piece of only 17 minutes, but it channels a difficult period in his life and those of many Chinese.

Sheng doesn't want to be a full-time spokesman for his culture, but he finds it hard not to.

"Whenever I [meet people] I have to start from the beginning; it's a little bit tiring," he says. "But at the same time, I think there are a lot of things people don't know about China, about the Cultural Revolution. A large amount of people still to this day think maybe it did something good for the people."

He doesn't shy from challenging those who he feels are trying to shed a good light on Mao Zedong. "I think the truth has to come out," says Sheng. "To this day, people are still paying the price for the crime that Mao made. How can you say he's OK? Do you judge Stalin that way? Do you judge Hitler that way?"

In fact, Sheng says Mao's legacy continues to impede learning in China.

"The problem in China is that the education system is very, very bad," says Sheng, who had to relearn much information about Western classical music when he moved to New York. "Especially new music [suffers], because you don't get to hear great orchestras play or [hear new] pieces. It's very touching how the students and some of the young composers are able to still come up with very striking, original pieces."

To lend more support to his homeland, Sheng joined cellist Yo-Yo Ma for the Silk Road Project, which commissioned works from some of these gifted indigenous composers. The ongoing endeavor examines the culture of the original Silk Road region, which extended across Asia and Europe over such regions as India, Tibet and Greece.

"We commissioned a lot of composers from the Silk Road region; each of them will write pieces for both Western instruments and their local folk or classical instruments," Sheng said. "We have about 10 Chinese composers, half living in China, so there are very talented people in China."

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