Q&A With Zhou Tian
The CSO performs the world premiere of Zhou Tian's "Concerto for Orchestra" May 13 and 14
Fanfare Cincinnati: First, tell us a little about this new Concerto for Orchestra. What sort of things should the audiences listen for during this world premiere?
Zhou Tian: The piece was written as a love letter to the symphony orchestra, with passages ranging from absolutely epic to extremely intimate. My intention was to write a piece of composition that celebrates music making and the sheer power of expressiveness of an orchestra through countless combinations of instrumental colors, melodies, and rhythms. And I could not think of a better medium than the concerto for orchestra to achieve this. (In fact, the original employment of the word “concerto” is to denote a combination of instruments.)
I imagine it’d be interesting to listen for how distinctively different the orchestra sounds through the four movements of the work: Glow (a warped voyage to splendidness, all from a monastic theme); Indigo (a musical postcard from a walk in the forest one late summer night); Seeker’s Scherzo (a restless game to find the true theme); and Intermezzo – Allegro (a fierce rhapsody wrapped in warmth and lushness).
FC: This is not the first new work you have written for the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra. What is unique about writing for this Orchestra?
ZT: I am incredibly lucky to have (now) two works written for and premiered by the Cincinnati Symphony. As a composer, I feel liberated and inspired when composing for this great orchestra. Liberated because by knowing the world-class musicianship and the affection and dedication for music, old and new, from all members of this orchestra would allow me to focus on writing the best music that I can. Inspired because I found that behind the power and edginess, there is an unmistakable sense of romanticism in the sound of the Cincinnati Symphony, which is also one quality that I believe my music often shows. So it was like working with someone who really knew what I wanted musically. It’s simply a dream come true.
FC: What are some of your greatest influences as a composer?
ZT: I would say my biggest three influences roughly coincide with three periods of my life: Chinese traditional music and art, from my experiences of growing up in China; my dad, a commercial composer/songwriter who encouraged me to play and appreciate jazz, pop, and world music while still practicing the Brahms; and American symphonists, from Barber to Ives, to my teachers such as Jennifer Higdon and Christopher Rouse.
FC: What are some of the greatest challenges about composing a Concerto for Orchestra? Rewards?
ZT: One of the biggest challenges is to not get carried away with “playing” with this powerful organization (a great symphony orchestra) which can do, basically, anything a composer throws at it, but to stay true to the music that I really wanted to express. If the magnificent orchestration didn’t match what my core music ideas intended to express, I reach for the eraser and move on. As I said previously, I wanted this to be a love letter to the orchestra, not a demonstration of what I can do technically as a composer. Rewards? I get to sit back and hear it being realized by world-class musicians. Sometimes a process of realizing a major work is in itself the biggest reward: experience, confidence and inspiration for future pieces.
FC: The CSO’s mission is “To seek and share inspiration.” Where do you seek and find inspiration?
ZT: Everywhere! My recent works were inspired by things as different as a disappearing past due to industrialization (Poem From A Vanished Time, a CSO commission), Father-daughter relations of Spanish hero El Cid (Viaje), poetry and calligraphy from the Song dynasty (Broken Ink), and connecting Bach with Erhu, a traditional Chinese instruments on violin (Violin Concerto “The Infinite Dance”). As a composer, I’d like to stay curious and openminded. In fact, your question just reminded me that perhaps the 3rd movement of the Concerto for Orchestra, Seeker’s Scherzo, is after all, autobiographical!