I’ve always been interested in the musical relationship between the performers and the composer. For most of the history, musicians are taught to interpret differently on different composers, and the rules are strict: phrasings in Brahms is different from those in Mozart, a piano in Debussy may not be the same as it in Beethoven, and “don’t romanticize that Bach!” – a memorable note from my childhood piano teacher; even Tchaikovsky had his own meaning of Moderato.
But what about the composers? What can I, a living composer, do musically to enhance the relationship towards the musicians? Or should I care at all? Surely precedents can be found when composers and musicians collaborated in solo works or concerti (e.g. Prokofiev/Rostropovich, Dutilleux/P. Sacher), but to customize a work for an entire orchestra is much harder and rarer, especially today, when composers don’t get to write for the same orchestra too often.
The rare opportunity to have two premieres with the Cincinnati Symphony within three seasons (“Trace” was premiered in 2013, after which I was approached for a larger work) gave me the inspiration for my “Concerto for Orchestra,” a musical illustration of dreams and motifs, in which every instrument of the large symphony orchestra is treated soloistically. Feeling like a young playwright who’s been given an awesome and familiar cast, I played with the idea of creating a singular musical journey through an army of micro concertos, with passages ranging from extremely intimate to epic. The work, to me, is truly a love letter to the symphony orchestra.
The 35-minute work is comprised of four movements. It opens with “Glow,” an exploration of a wide gamut of colors and rhythms inspired by a dream of seeing gigantic light waves glowing in the dark. Every time the music reaches a climactic point, there is a more emotional and expansive one around the corner. “Indigo,” a meditative second movement, is a musical postcard from a walk in the forest one late summer night. A “retro” miniature “Seeker’s Scherzo” follows. It borrows from the Classical form while adding new turns and twists. The finale, “Intermezzo – Allegro,” is a fierce rhapsody that begins with a warm and lyrical fugue. Once the “Allegro” is ignited, occasional touches of jazz syncopation and harmony are mixed with folksy Chinese tunes in perpetual motion.
“Concerto for Orchestra” was commissioned by the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra with generous support from Ann and Harry Santen. The recording of the work released on Fanfare Cincinnati was made possible by a generous gift from Mace Justice.
— Zhou Tian
Q&A with Zhou (Cincinnati Symphony)
Louis Langrée’s program featuring Beethoven’s “Eroica” Symphony and a world premiere by Chinese-born composer Zhou Tian was nothing but celebratory. It was a splendid send-off before the orchestra decamps to a temporary home at the Taft Theatre. Both performances were inspired, and listeners were on their feet twice, with enthusiastic and lengthy ovations.
Zhou Tian’s Concerto for Orchestra was the third installment of Langrée’s Concerto for Orchestra project, and it was being recorded live for a planned album on the orchestra’s label. The 34-year-old composer is among the third generation of Chinese-born composers now impacting American music.
Trained at Philadelphia’s Curtis Institute of Music, New York’s Juilliard School and the University of Southern California, Zhou Tian has studied with some of America’s finest composers, such as Jennifer Higdon. But his music also displays his gift for lyricism and evocative color that may be the result of his Chinese upbringing. The composer told the audience that his concerto was “a love letter” to the CSO. Besides power and “edginess,” he tried to mirror the romantic quality of the orchestra in his music, he said.
Tonal and engaging, it was an ambitious showpiece in four symphonic movements. The first, entitled “Glow,” was a patchwork of many ideas, including glowing instrumental colors, lush melodies for the strings, staccato figures for the trumpets and big cadenza for clarinet (Jonathan Gunn), complete with Gershwin-like “smears.”...the slow movement, “Indigo,” was stunning. Atmospheric and reminiscent of Bartok’s “night music,” it featured bird calls for the flutes and mystical writing for the strings.
A lighthearted scherzo movement followed, with an angular theme that wound its way inventively through a number of orchestral soloists. The finale balanced intimate, chamber-like sections – such as an opening sextet for five strings and clarinet – against romantic melodies for full orchestra. A driving perpetual motion, it continuously engaged the ear with inventive touches such as ripples in the piano, timpani flourishes and Chinese gongs.
Langrée led with conviction, and the musicians gave it a top-notch reading. While Zhou Tian took a bow, the conductor went into the ranks to shake the hand of each orchestral soloist, and there were many.
—The Cincinnati Enquirer
Zhou Tian (Zhou is his family name) was born in China in 1981, and he's now on the faculty of Colgate University in Hamilton NY. All his teachers--Jennifer Higdon and Christopher Rouse among them--were Americans, and there was nothing in his concerto that sounded overtly Asian. Zhou's writing, like Escaich's, is tonally based, but phrases often follow themselves to their own conclusions, whether or not they butt up against another phrase. His harmonies have a Hindemithian punch to them. The first theme in the first movement is playful, with rippling woodwinds and hints of Stravinsky and impressionism. The lower strings introduce the second theme, slower and more romantic. Zhou makes his structures very clear. He is unafraid of monumental gestures, but at the same time he wastes nothing, whether notes or our time itself. A clarinet cadenza seemed out of place until the other winds joined in, reconstructing the opening theme around it for the recapitulation.
In II gauzy strings and then summery winds present themselves; Zhou's sense of dissonance is almost rigorous, but he writes so smoothly and naturally that they gave no offense. The orchestra played like they'd known the piece all their lives; the musicians were the most united and expressive I've heard in a while. The strings' luster made me wish I could stop writing and just listen. The last two movements are thematically weaker, though there are always touches of fine craftsmanship. In the final movement, Intermezzo-Allegro, the trumpet fanfare that marked the transition between the two parts was brought in with astounding deftness. I only wished the themes lived up to what came before.
My understanding is that all three concertos are coming out on disc at some point, and I'm looking forward to hearing them again. Maybe I'll hear things in the last two movements that I didn't the first time through. If it's not a masterpiece, it is still a work to be proud of.
—American Record Guide
“...Ravishing, its second movement a gorgeous, impressionistic wallow.”
—The Arts Desk (London)
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