About this Recording
8.579014 - SHENG, Bright: Northern Lights / Melodies of a Flute / 4 Movements for Piano Trio (Dan Zhu, J. Schwarz, Trey Lee, Bright Sheng)

Bright Sheng (b. 1955)
Northern Lights (2009) • Melodies of a Flute (2011) • Four Movements for Piano Trio (1990) • Sweet May Again (2007) • Hot Pepper (2010)


Northern Lights (2009)
for violoncello and piano
1. ♪ = 88
2. ♩ = 69
3. ♩ = 63–66
4. ♩ = 144–152

The work is dedicated to Inger G. Ginsberg.

Northern Lights was jointly commissioned by The Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center, La Jolla Music Society, and the Bergen Festival with a generous gift from William Ginsberg in honour of his wife, Inger G. Ginsberg. It was finished on December 28th, 2009, in New York City.

Folk music has been my fascination and creative resource for over four decades. In the early 1970s, I became infatuated with the folks songs of Qinghai (eastern Tibet), a rare fusion and crossover of several ethnic folk cultures in the region. Subsequently, during my undergraduate years at the Shanghai Conservatory of Music, I systematically studied Chinese folk music traditions in more detail. Shortly after I moved to the United States in the early 1980s, my interest was broadened to include the music cultures surrounding China, and the study of how these cultures had influenced, intermingled with, and infiltrated each other. This led to my series of studies of the music cultures along the Silk Road, an ancient trading route between the old empires of China and Rome, while helping my friend Yo-Yo Ma launch the Silk Road Project. I have also been captivated by American folk music for decades, especially Bluegrass and Country music, and I have long hoped to find a pretext to include these elements in my work.

My friends Inger and Bill Ginsberg live in New York City and in Helle, Norway, where Inger was born. During one conversation, Bill, well versed in Norwegian culture, introduced me to Norwegian and Scandinavian folk music. I became even more excited when, after further examination, I noticed its kinship with some forms of American country music, such as Appalachian and Bluegrass.

In many ways, composing music in various styles is similar to an author writing in different languages. On the one hand, an opus is usually at its most effective when written in a mother tongue, but on the other, many literary giants wrote in their second (or even third) language with great results. Northern Lights is my first attempt to integrate Norwegian/Scandinavian folk music into my work, and it probably has a linguistic ‘accent’. However, as a student who is embarking on his first performance with a newly learned language, I am very excited by the prospect of incorporating another musical language into my works.

The title of the work, Northern Lights, refers to an astronomical natural phenomenon also known as the Aurora borealis: shafts or curtains of fantastically colored lights visible on occasion in the night sky, particularly in countries near the North Pole (such as Norway.)

Melodies of a Flute (2011) 幽幽簫聲
for flute/alto flute, violin, violoncello & marimba (and one small suspended cymbal)
I. Flute and Phoenix 鳳舞簫鳴
II. Lotus Flowers 藕花深處

Melodies of a Flute was commissioned by Luci Janssen, for her husband Richard, on the occasion of their 40th wedding anniversary. It was written for Camerata Pacifica, who gave the première performance on April 10th, 2012, at the Huntington Library of San Marino,
California, with Adrian Spence on flute and alto flute, Catherine Leonard on violin, Ani Aznavoorian on violoncello, and Ji Hye Jung on marimba and small suspended cymbal.

Melodies of a Flute was inspired by the poetry of Li Qing Zhao (李清照1084–c.1151), arguably the most important female poet in the history of Chinese literature. Unlike her (mostly male) contemporaries during the Song Dynasty (960–1279), Li was audacious in expressing her deep feelings, sometimes in a rather direct and sensuous way. According to the Confucian tradition, unwavering expression of love and passion was considered taboo and distasteful. Most of the love poems found in ancient Chinese poetry were often used as metaphors for articulating something else (such as the author’s loyalty to the emperor) and when love was the true intended theme, it was often implied in other symbolic forms such as flowers or weather. However Li Qing Zhao, expressively or metaphorically, often wrote about her love life with her husband and soulmate Zhao Ming Cheung, a government official.

In the first movement, I tried to capture the mood of longing in Memories of a Flute on the Phoenix Terrace, in which Li compares her marriage with an old myth about love and music in order to utter her sadness on the eve of Zhao’s departure to a far-away post designated by the emperor. This fable, known as Flute and Phoenix, was a recurrent reference in her poems: Nong Yu, an avid jade flute player and the daughter of a Duke, fell in love with a virtuoso musician named Xiao Shi, who, when playing the (vertical) flute, could recreate the song of the phoenix. Later the two were married and played flutes everyday on the Phoenix Terrace built by the Duke, until one day, charmed by the music, the phoenix came and brought them to heaven.

Memories of a Flute on the Phoenix Terrace

No more aroma from the gilt incense burner,
Only the crimson waves of quilts left in bed;
No mood to disentangle my curls,
Only me watching the morning sun staring at the dusty jewel box.

So much sadness of separation I am terrified to endure;
So many words I crave but hesitate to utter.
I have grown thinner as days have gone by,
Not for over drinking, nor for the sorrow of autumn.

This is it! This is it! This time when he leaves,
I won’t retain him even with the thousands of farewells I sing

I fret with the thoughts of my beloved being far, far away,
Leaving me alone in this empty chamber locked by fog and smog;
None but the passing-by stream will keep me company,
Watching over my fixed gaze day in and day out where
Only solitude is my new companion.

The inspiration for the second movement, Lotus Flowers, came from a poem in which the author tells of a spontaneous boating race in which she lost her way among the lotus flowers. As in many of Li’s works, this poem may suggest itself as a sensuous metaphor:

To the Tune: Like a Dream 如夢令

I always remember that dusk at a pagoda by the creek.
In our boats, we were exultant but exhausted,
Too tipsy to remember our way home;
We got lost into the deep place of lotus flowers.

Row! Row!
We startled a flock of egrets and gulls.







Four Movements for Piano Trio (1990)
1. ♪ = 54
2. ♩ = 72
3. ♩ = 112
4. ♪ = 66 (Nostalgia)

Four Movements for Piano Trio was commissioned by the Walter W. Naumburg Foundation for the Peabody Trio, winner of the Naumburg Chamber Music Award. The work was first performed by the Peabody Trio at Alice Tully Hall, Lincoln Center, New York City on April 24th, 1990. The folkloric style and prelude-like first movement of Four Movements for Piano Trio is constructed through the use of heterophony, a device typical of Asian music. The second movement of the work is based on a humorous and joyful folk song from Si-Chuan. In the third movement, a savage dance, the melody grows through a series of ‘Chinese sequences’ (my own term to describe a type of melodic development whereby the initial motif is repeated, each time lengthening its duration and widening the tessitura). The last movement evokes a sense of lonesome nostalgia.

Sweet May Again (2007)
for string bass and piano
Sweet May Again was jointly commissioned by Emanuel Ax, Edgar Meyer and the Carnegie Hall Corporation. It was premièred on April 17th, 2007 in Nashville, Tennessee, and the New York City première took place on April 20th, 2007 at the Zankel Hall at Carnegie Hall. It is dedicated to Edgar Meyer and Emanuel Ax.

Aside from the obvious virtuosity of these two great musicians, my inspiration for the work also came from a short poem with the same title by William Carlos Williams (1883–1963).

I was especially intrigued by the structure of this short poem and the surprising final line. I wondered if I could emulate it in music: a work beginning with material which seems to be going its own way but unexpectedly turns into something almost unrelated, though gentle and comforting.

Hot Pepper (2010)
for violin and marimba
1. ♪ = 50–52
2. ♩ = 126–144

Hot Pepper was commissioned for Camerata Pacifica by Bob Peirce as a birthday celebration for his wife, Sharon Harroun Peirce. The première of the work took place on September 10, 2010, and was given by Catherine Leonard (violin) and Ji Hye Jung (marimba). The two-movement Hot Pepper for violin and marimba is based on a folk song from China’s Si Chuan province, which is well known for its hot and spicy cuisine.

Bright Sheng

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