About this Recording
8.570617 - XU, Shuya: Insolation / Cristal au Soleil Couchant / Echos du Vieux Champ / Nirvana / Yun (Shu-ying Li, Qilian Chen, Vienna Radio Symphony, Rabl)
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Xu Shuya (b. 1961)
Nirvana • Insolation • Cristal au Soleil Couchant • Echos du Vieux Champ • Yun


Born in May 1961 in Changchun, north-east China, Xu Shuya entered the composition and conducting department of the Shanghai Conservatory of Music in 1978 and studied with renowned composers Zhu Jian’er and Ding Shande. Graduating in 1983, he then joined the department as a young faculty member. In 1988, he won an art scholarship from the French Ministry of Foreign Affairs, and was sent to Paris by the Chinese Ministry of Culture to pursue his studies.

In 1989 Xu was awarded the Excellent Prize of the senior composition class (masters degree) of the École Normale de Musique de Paris. In the same year, he was also admitted into the senior composition class of the Conservatoire National Supérieur de Musique et de Danse de Paris (CNSMDP), studying with Ivo Malec, Alain Bancquart, Gérard Grisey, Betsy Jolas and Laurent Cuniot. He also took part in master-classes with Karlheinz Stockhausen, Franco Donatoni and Klaus Huber. Xu was awarded the 1992 Premier Prix of his composition class with ‘unanimous approval’, and again in 1994 as a doctoral student. He was enrolled then in the same year in the doctoral class of the Institut de Recherche et Coordination Acoustique/Musique (IRCAM) of the Centre Pompidou for one year, and settled in Paris.

In 1982 Xu’s first work, his Violin Concerto, won the First Prize of the Alexander Tcherepnin Foundation in the USA. In 1992, Cristal au Soleil Couchant won the First Prize of the 5th Besançon International Competition of Symphonic Composition (the Italian composer Luciano Berio was chairman of the jury), and was selected as part of Beijing’s list of ‘Twentieth-century Chinese music classics’. In 1993, his work Taiyi II for flute and electronic music won second prize in both the 21st Bourges International Electroacoustic Music Competition, and the 15th Luigi Russolo International Competition in Italy, and also the ACL Yoshiro Irino Memorial Prize in Tokyo.

In 2000 Xu worked with the French choreographer Jean Claude Gallotta to create the contemporary ballet Les Larmes de Marco Polo, which was successfully given its première at the International Art Festival, Lyon, France. The work was later taken on tour to festivals in Paris, Marseille, Brussels and Rio de Janeiro, and toured in Bangkok, Beijing, Shanghai, Seoul and Tokyo to great critical acclaim. In 2002, his commissioned three-act opera Snow in August was given its première at the Taipei Theatre, with Nobel Prize winner Gao Xingjian acting as both playwright and director. The work later won the ‘Best Annual Opera, 2005’ award of Opéra International, France.

Xu’s next opera, In Memory of Taiping Lake, was commissioned by NPS (Nederlandse Programma Stichting) for performance at the Amsterdam Concertgebouw in 2004; and the following year he completed a musical, West Street of Yangshuo commissioned by the Bureau of Culture of Guangxi Province and performed by Guangxi Opera and Dance Drama Theatre in Nanning. In 2007 the Shanghai Spring International Music Festival commissioned the symphonic poem Yun, which was given its première at the opening ceremony of the festival. His large-scale magic show Monkey King (2008), commissioned by the Chinese Puppet Show Theatre, has been staged more than two hundred times. In 2010 he was co-commissioned by Radio France and the Shanghai Spring International Music Festival to compose the symphonic poem World Expo Imagination. In 2011 the Taipei Palace Museum commissioned his opera Emperor Kangxi and the Sun King Louis XIV, which was given its first performance in the museum.

Xu Shuya is the Chairman of the Shanghai Musicians Association, Director of the Art Committee of the Shanghai Spring International Music Festival, Member of the 12th Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference (CPPCC), Member of the 11th Shanghai Municipal CPPCC and Vice President of the Shanghai Overseas Returned Scholars Association. Moreover, he acts as the Director of the Academic Committee at Shanghai Conservatory of Music, professor of composition and electronic music composition and doctoral supervisor. From February 2009 to September 2014 Xu Shuya acted as president of the Shanghai Conservatory of Music.

Xu’s music is published by Editions Billaudot and by Editions Lemoine and Jobert. He is currently working on a new symphony, a joint commission from the New York Philharmonic and the Shanghai Symphony Orchestra, to be given its première in New York in April 2016. His work Narrative on Dalai Lake will be given its première by the St Petersburg Symphony Orchestra at the 2015 Shanghai Spring International Music Festival. He also has a new work for performance by the Ensemble InterContemporain, which will be given its première during Shanghai New Music Week in 2015.

Insolation (1997-2014) was inspired by an ancient Chinese myth, Kuafu Chasing the Sun, which tells of the giant Kuafu and his wish to catch and tame the sun. Kuafu died of thirst following his exertions, unable to find enough water to cool him after the scorching heat, and various features of the Chinese landscape (particularly mountains and forests) are attributed to his actions during the race. His fate is held up in many versions of the myth as a demonstration of heroism and perseverance against nature—ultimately ending in tragedy. This piece was written to express the bravery and determination of primitive man’s attempts to conquer nature, and the gradual developments—and revelations—that lead from the old ways of living into the new.

The work was given its première at the theme concert ‘Root’ by the Shanghai Symphony Orchestra in 1997 under the Chinese-American conductor Tseng Yeh, as part of the Shanghai International Art Festival. It was later given by the Vienna Radio Symphony Orchestra under Cornelius Meister at the Shanghai Oriental Art Centre in 2014.

Sunset holds a special fascination for Xu, particularly in that moment just before the sun vanishes beyond the horizon, and its rays both dominate the sky and find their reflections and refractions in sand, stone and other natural crystals in the landscape. He observed this effect in the deserts of both Egypt and western China, and was stunned by both the intensity of the light and the extraordinary variety of colours created at sundown. It was scenes such as these that inspired his 1992 work Cristal au Soleil Couchant (Crystal Sunset).

The orchestra is divided into three groups for this piece: one on the left of the stage, one in the middle and one on the right. Similarly, the organization of musical material matches this three-part structure, with two simpler sections framing a complex central passage. Whilst the number three also has a bearing on the tonal structure (three-note groups drawn from the pentatonic scale, presented and elaborated to create nine melodic phrases), these groups are used throughout the piece, across all sections. They have a single point of derivation, too: the tone A, from which the three-note groups emerge. As the piece progresses, and the harmonic material is ‘refracted’ in this way, the orchestral texture becomes layered with ideas presented in different durations, full of echoes and cross-connections—a multi-dimensional musical construction that mirrors the many lights across the desert.

Cristal au Soleil Couchant was awarded first prize at the 5th Besançon International Orchestra Composition Competition, and was given its première by the Toulouse National Orchestra at the Besançon International Music Festival on 11 September 1993. It was also part of the repertoire for the finals of the 43rd Besançon International Conducting Competition. It has been performed by the Gävleborg Symphony Orchestra at the ISCM World Music Festival, Stockholm, as well as by other orchestras in Europe, Hong Kong and Taiwan. The piece was Xu’s graduation work for his master’s degree from the Conservatoire National Supérieur de Musique et de Danse de Paris (CNSMDP).

Echos du Vieux Champ (Echoes of the Old Country), commissioned by the French Ministry of Culture in 1993, reflects the composer’s nostalgia for his homeland whilst he was studying in France: memories of the sunshine, wind, passing seasons, nature, people, architecture and other scenes. The piece draws a series of highly contrasting variations from the central interval of a second, and is intended to reflect a succession of contrasting concepts, as follows:

  • Interval structure: dense and sparse, hard and soft
  • Spatial: central and peripheral, empty and full
  • Timbre: dark and light, Yin and Yang
  • Material: Interrupted and uninterrupted, varied and continuous

The work was given its première at the Centre Pompidou, Paris on 3 February 1993, performed by the Ensemble L’Itinéraire under Alain Louvier. It is scored for a chamber orchestra of seventeen players including winds, brass, strings, harp, piano and two percussionists.

Nirvana is a transcendent Buddhist state in which there is no suffering, desire, or sense of self. In Chinese culture, ‘Phoenix Nirvana’ is used to describe a strong sense of conviction, perseverance, or the pursuit of a higher state of human existence. The orchestral work Nirvana is shaped by both the spiritual idea of Nirvana, and reflections on the Tibetan landscape. Xu speaks of the ‘purity of the vast plain, the mystery of the valley and the faint, distant melodies, like tunes from heaven’, their beauty and simplicity evoking for him a ‘bittersweet pleasure’.

Following the tempestuous opening section, it becomes apparent that the work is constructed from two basic ideas: repetitive chordal writing in the strings, rooted in recurring rhythmic patterns; and swirling wind and brass motifs which are unfolded from a simple melodic fragment to build in complexity and density as the music progresses. Together, these ideas constitute an interplay between the static and the dynamic, with the cycling wind and brass motifs gradually returning to the simpler forms of their initial presentation. The ultimate quiet resolution of these two ideas mirrors the inner transformation of the soul from agitation to harmony and tranquility, as it moves into the state of Nirvana.

Nirvana was commissioned by Radio France in 2000, and given its première by the Orchestre National de France under the Swiss conductor Luca Pffaf on 15 June 2001.

Yun, inspired by the famous south-eastern Chinese folk song Zi Zhu Diao (Purple Bamboo Melody), was commissioned by the Shanghai Media Group (SMG) and given its première by the Shanghai Symphony Orchestra under Xieyang Chen at the opening concert of the Shanghai Spring International Music Festival in 2007. Xu dedicated the work to Shanghai, where he had both studied and worked at the Conservatory of Music from 1978 to 1988; and where he subsequently returned to become the institution’s President following 21 years’ residence in France.

Written for soprano, mezzo-soprano and orchestra, Yun unites folk melodies and rhythms drawn from Zi Zhu Diao, with symphonic textures and gestures—often passing characteristic ideas between the instrumentalists and singers. As with Xu’s other works, this piece begins from a single note, played in unison by the brass, from which full phrases then build and develop. The wind section hints at partial fragments of Zi Zhu Diao, before these are taken up by the rest of the orchestra. The principal short phrase of the folk song is sung wordlessly by the soprano and mezzo, whilst the orchestra provides other fragments of melody from the song, a narration to the vocal line.

There is a growing sense of rhythmic dynamism as the piece progresses, with the percussion section coming to play an increasingly prominent rôle in the texture. Fragments of melody are superimposed by both singers and instrumentalists, building to a powerful climax. As this energetic section finally subsides, the singers take the lead in an extended, lyrical rendition of Zi Zhu Diao over minimal accompaniment. When they fall silent, there is a final swell of sound from the full orchestra, before high strings, bells and triangle are left suspended in mid-air, fading at last into silence.

Xu Shuya
Edited by Katy Hamilton

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