SSO's first recording on German music label will promote Chinese composer
Conductor Yu Long chose Chinese composer Chen Qigang's violin concerto, La Joie de la Souffrance (The Joy of Suffering) to appear on his new album with the Shanghai Symphony Orchestra, Gateways. But Yu's first encounter with Chen was not exactly harmonious.
Yu wanted to perform one of Chen's compositional works during the Beijing Music Festival, an annual classical music festival held in the capital, which Yu founded in 1998 and of which he was artistic director from 1998 to 2018. However, Chen said no. Instead, the composer floated the idea of having a concert where the repertoires were all written by him.
"Usually a concert featuring work written by one composer is held to commemorate them after death. It did not seem like a good idea to me back then," recalls Yu. "However, after listening to Chen's work, I changed my mind. The concert was successful and I told Chen immediately after the concert how touched I was by his music."
Under the baton of Yu, the China Philharmonic performed Chen's music during the concert in 2002, including Wu Xing (The Five Elements) and Iris Devoilee, as well as a world premiere of Chen's Reflet d'un Temps Disparu for erhu (a bowed two-string instrument) and orchestra, which was adapted from the composer's piece with the same title originally written for cello and orchestra.
Since then, Yu has led China's symphony orchestras in performing Chen's work worldwide.
On the latest album, entitled Gateways, the first recording of the Shanghai Symphony Orchestra signed it signed to Deutsche Grammophon label in June 2018, Yu, the conductor and artistic director of the 140-year-old orchestra, selected two of Chen's works to feature the album: the violin concerto, La joie de la sufferance and Wu Xing (The Five Elements).
"When we discussed the programs for the orchestra's first album with DG, we all agreed to tell Chinese stories through music. An important mission of the album is to bridge the gap between traditional Chinese culture and an international audience," says Yu. "Chen's work is frequently played worldwide and enjoyed by people from different cultures. He has a unique way of combining traditional Chinese philosophy with Western music. You can feel his incredible imagination in his music, therefore, it was among the first we chose.
"When we have performed his work around the world, Chen liked to say something to the audience about his pieces and I have always stopped him. His music speaks for itself and is strong enough to communicate with people."
Born in Shanghai, Yu, 55, studied piano with his grandfather, the composer Ding Shande, before he was trained at the Shanghai Conservatory of Music and later at the Hochschule der Kunst in Berlin. On his return from Europe, Yu has become a central character in the development of the Chinese classical music scene.
Like Yu, Chen, 68, is also a Shanghai native. In 1977, Chen was enrolled to study composition at the Central Conservatory of Music in Beijing and in 1984 he moved to France where, for four years, he studied with Olivier Messiaen as the great French composer's last pupil. He is best known as the musical director for the opening ceremony of the 2008 Beijing Olympic Games and composed the song, You and Me. He is also known for his cooperation with Chinese film director Zhang Yimou on the 2001 ballet production, Raise the Red Lantern, based on Zhang's film with the same title and the film, The Flowers of War, in 2011.
The two works by Chen on the new album come from very different periods in his career.
Wu Xing, written between 1998 and 1999, is a five-movement suite, portraying the five traditional Chinese elements: water, wood, fire, earth and metal.
"When I first wrote Wu Xing, the piece was not well received, since the melodies were not smooth and not considered beautiful in a traditional way," says Chen. "But, over the course of the last 20 years, a growing number of people have developed a liking for it and it's beyond my expectation."
The violin concerto, La joie de la Souffrance, was written in 2017, and Chen added color with a percussion section. Maxim Vengerov played the solo part and the violinist premiered the work along with China Philharmonic under the baton of Yu during the 20th Beijing Music Festival.
The Shanghai Symphony Orchestra also knows the violin concerto very well since it was a test piece for the 2018 Shanghai Isaac Stern International Violin Competition and was played by the six finalists, accompanied by the Orchestra.
"The relationship between a composer and his music is like that of a biological father and his children. For the interpreters, like the conductors and symphony orchestras, they are like the 'foster parents' of the work," says Chen. "As the 'biological father', I can do nothing about my work after I finished writing it, but Yu has his own understanding of my music, which sometimes surprises me."