Who or what brings the colorful players of the Forbidden City Chamber orchestra to Jordan Hall in company with the Borromeo String Quartet and one of our favorite pianists for crossover program inspired by mostly Eastern European composers? Cathy Chan, the quietly essential director of the Foundation for Chinese Performing Arts comes to mind first as the titular presenter, but further investigation finds Chinese-American pianist Meng-Chieh Liu at the center of the March 25th event. The full program is HERE.
One of the deepest artists we have come to know, Meng, having just come off a two-year survey of the complete Brahms keyboard works (all from memory, incidentally), is set to tour in China in May and June, performing Rachmaninov Concertos 2 and 3 with China Philharmonic, Kunming Sym, Shenzhen Sym, and Qingdao Sym.
Meng took some time off from a mostly nonstop day of teaching at NEC to fill us in about the festivities
Did you have to work as hard as Busoni did when he was here? He saw five students an hour for $5, and he complained, “I’m the greatest pianist in the world, and they make me teach five people per hour.” So how hard do you work at NEC?
Well, I do work pretty hard, and I do take my work very seriously, though I hardly have to teach that number of students. I’m glad to say that education at NEC is very different these days. I think the quality of preparation has gone down a lot and we see it in auditions and in competitions: we see that kids are not taught so carefully anymore. Part of it, certainly, is the teaching system, but part of it is the students themselves. As they grow up, they are perhaps not as passionate about music anymore…so there’s a lot that you need to do with the kids. You need to spend a lot teaching them about how to care for the music and what to listen for and what to do. It’s very involved.
Does it matter where they come from, in terms of how committed they are and how well they’ve been prepared?
I think, of course, culture is a very strange thing. Today, the world is much smaller because of our use of the Internet, let’s say, or the use of technology. So really, there shouldn’t be a lot of differences between people who come from China or America, but you can’t really generalize.
But in each generation, there’s a different group that’s striving for acceptance and striving for middle-class status. A hundred years ago, it was the refugee Jews—the ones who were pushing so hard to reach the highest levels in attainment. Now, you look at a concert of students and you see very few “native-born” Americans in the group. People say, by the way, that that you have the “Asian” position in the piano department.
The “Asian” position? [Laughs]
Let’s put it this way: I think, overall, most conservatories are now occupied more with the Asian student population. But it’s not true that there are more Asian students or more Asian music lovers—I don’t think that myth’s actually true. I think it’s that Asians are just like the refugee Jews; they’re striving for something and so they work harder for it. So their work ethic is more admired, and, certainly, the result is much more obvious.
This year, I’ve done a tremendous job in actually listening to a lot of the pre-screening auditions. There are actually just as many applicants who are “native” Americans—I’m talking about American-born—as the foreign Chinese.
The problem is that, while they’re all learning music, it’s just there’s a different level of commitment—a different level of understanding of music. Of course, as we filter through these students and certainly through the process of auditions, you’ll still find that there are probably more Asian students that are preferred by teachers this day because they see them as more potential candidates to succeed in the world of music.
How many of them are planning on staying in America, as a percentage—do you have any idea?
It depends. Of course, a lot of people do want to stay here—this is the land of opportunity, but (as you know) China is also a land of opportunity right now. Things are changing very rapidly right now, and so it’s hard to see what’s going to happen in the next few years. Maybe a whole center of music will start to in a new place, in China somewhere. I mean, it is already…
I bring this all up because the concert that we’re talking about is a concert that combines Western musicians playing Eastern music with Eastern musician playing sort-of crossover music, and this cross-fertilization is something that might not have been happening as much when you came to America. You came to the Curtis Institute, didn’t you, when you were about 14 years and alone?
And you were not interested in Asian music at the time as much as Western music, correct?
So this is a story that happened to you and it’s happening to the world at large: that so many Asians from Seiji Ozawa on focused on Western music, and now there’s a little bit of a turning back towards your own music. I’d like to hear a little about whether that’s a fair observation.
How this particular project came about is very interesting. I, myself, enjoy playing all kinds of music—all styles of music, including contemporary, jazz, and so forth. I don’t do a lot of that in concerts because people really feel that I’m probably good at certain things, and they have expectations accordingly—but I do think that it’s really important to play the music of today. Four or five years ago, I took a group of students to play in China. This was already a forerunner—a thing that was really not done so much then.
A group of students from China, or a mixed group?
It’s actually a mixed group. Very well-trained students…a lot were my students from Curtis, and I brought along two other students from the percussion department. We were doing Bartok’s Sonata for 2 Pianos and Percussion, and also George Crumb’s Music for a Summer Evening [Makrokosmos III]. Now, these pieces are not really heard in China at all. This is an area of education that the Chinese especially need to learn about.
In what sorts of places were you playing this music?
It was great—we toured five cities: we toured Beijing, we toured Kimjing, we toured Shenyang, we toured Tsian, and then we were in Xinzhou (which is even further inland). It was a very interesting tour because the people (who had never heard this music) were so excited because there was such wonderful music other than the classical—Beethoven and Chopin—that they were used to hearing. And this is part of the problem with China as an emerging country and, certainly, as a developing country for classical music: they are still somewhat behind. Let’s just put it this way: even in their conservatory system, chamber music is not really a well-formed curriculum. The kids really lack a lot of chamber music skills—you can see that well when they come to this country. They have no skills in playing chamber music.
Many years ago, I was asked to consult with different conservatories, including in Shanghai, about setting up collaborative music departments. It’s an area that’s completely unknown to them. Now, let alone new music: there are very few new music specialists who would go there, and of course we’re not even talking about the 21st century, we’re talking the 20th century. This kind of music has not really even been explored there. Certainly, when you put on these pieces in concerts, a lot of times people organizing concerts will frown upon them because they say they won’t sell, and they’re very reluctant to present.
You run into a big problem: a big country that’s quickly developing a huge musical population, but yet their taste is very much back in the 200-years-ago period. My purpose was really to broaden this as a performer and an educator: to really show that there’s more to music than Beethoven, Mozart, and Chopin. This problem is because they’ve never experienced it first-hand, so they just wouldn’t know what it’s like.
To battle this, in one of the concert halls, I did George Crumb’s Music for a Summer Evening with lights. It was almost as if we were doing the Poem of Ecstasy by Scriabin: there were tons of colorful lights and colorful patterns that could be projected. It was a wonderful experiment, and people loved it. It’s just a matter of]how you present the music to new audiences, and then it is quickly absorbed.
While I was on this trip, I played five concerts. It coincided with a group of composers—the Composer’s Union from Eastern Europe, as a matter of fact. This group includes Poland, Bulgaria, Hungary… A lot of the composers from there had an annual meeting. This particular year, when I was touring with the Crumb and Bartok group, they happened to be in Beijing as well. They chose China to be the location for their meeting and they actually toured all over China to visit different tribes and collect their music first.
Sort of like Bartok.
Yes, very much like Bartok and Kodaly. It was very interesting because they were very interested to know what kind of musical heritage China offers. Of course, having so many minority tribes and so forth, China actually offers a great, rich heritage of music that is completely unknown outside of the country.
As they learned that I was doing this tour, they invited me to join their very last event, which was a presentation of concerts of an ensemble composed of Chinese instrumentalists playing Chinese music.
The Chinese Forbidden City Orchestra.
Yes, this is how I met them. The Chinese Forbidden City Orchestra already was in its third and fourth years of collaborating with Western composers, because the Western composers were so interested in creating new sounds. This is where new music is looking for new ways to create new sounds.
Now, obviously, back a hundred years, Bartok and Kodaly explored material from folk songs; still, to this day, we have done that as well. Tan Dun, certainly, has done that with a lot of the Chinese folk material—but, moreover, more composers are now interested in using different instruments to create new sounds. It’s an interesting concept, and since I was in this concert with the same but different creations…
As a result of the Composers Union tour, in Beijing, there were composers from Poland, there were composers from Spain, who were writing pieces. They were about to have a big tour in New Zealand, collaborating with composers who had come to China, worked with local tribes, and collected music. One of the pieces that was very interesting was a film of local tribes doing ceremonies; the music is interspersed in the film. It’s very experimental.
So this from the West came composers who were looking for new sounds and inspiration, you could say…but whose idea was it that you could fold a string quartet and a piano into the Forbidden City Chamber Orchestra?
Many of the artists in the ensemble are very well-known soloists and well-known educators; as a group, they’ve reached out—first, within their own country. There are many Chinese composers that are foreign-trained, and they write in a mixed language. Then they started with different composers from different countries. When I met them, they were actually in a project with a New Zealand string quartet. This is how this whole collaboration came about.
About two winters ago, they also invited us to visit. They thought that part of the program could be a repeat of these pieces that had already been written for them and the New Zealand quartet. So we invited the Borromeo Quartet to join us—and, of course, Borromeo has done many things like this and they’ve also done crossovers of mixtures of Korean traditional music and Western instruments, but this is completely new area or new repertoire for them as well.
We were there for 2-3 weeks and we recorded some of the new works. We also commissioned several new works (including from David Ludwig, who is on the composition faculty at Curtis) to write pieces for us. The result was a new way to find new sounds among these instruments and among these musicians, and to see what can become the new path for new music.
What Bartok started, others followed—and, still today, composers collect folk melodies from the countryside. But it’s not only that: It’s the way to break away from the traditional harmony, to break away in form or even in concept.
And to break away from traditional scales, also?
Well, you can’t do that at the piano…
Not in tuning, but in certain ways, yes.
So are you combining different tunings and scales from the East with those that we are familiar with in the West?
I wouldn’t say that we’re combining tuning…for now, a lot of the tuning system is still very even-tempered, and it is still what we really hear on the piano today.
Yet this presents some problems on the piano, as we learned when we collaborated two years ago with the ensemble—we realized that Chinese instruments are tempered in a certain way, so that when you put that together with a Western string quartet, you don’t necessarily sound tuned together…but that doesn’t matter! It’s a new sound!
So there’s a certain tension in the tuning-
Absolutely. It’s really about the sound that we are exploring to see whether there’s an expressive quality to the combination that can represent the face of new music.
Is this about sound, more than musical expression?
Not necessarily. I think it’s about everything. It is about expression, it is about sound, it is about tradition… These Chinese instrumentalists were not trained like Western instrumentalists. We’re very vigorous in our training and we’ve gone through Stravinsky and Bartok; they have not done that, so when they play music of this type, it’s very different for them.
Is it hypnotic? What is it going to sound like to us?
It depends on what the composer is trying to strive for.
Are we going to be hearing rain sticks?
[Laughs] Actually, it’s funny… Let me give you an example: we asked David Ludwig to compose this piece that is called “Stars, Song, and Lilies”—and it’s an interesting reminiscence of the savage rhythms of Bartok, but yet it evokes the mood of ancient China.
This has been done before—Debussy used pentatonic scales, and he evoked moods of the distant past. It’s just that there are more sound palettes to explore, so here we have a Chinese traverse flute that is kind of giving an interesting sound… As you said, it’s about mood in this case.
Then you have the string quartet; even mixed with piano and this Chinese flute, it provides a different texture than, say, if it’s all Chinese instruments or a string quartet with a traditional Western instrument.
If there’s one piece on YouTube that this can suggest (you can send it to me later)… There’s got to be a couple examples.
Ludwig’s piece is one, and the other is by a Chinese composer who wrote in a beautiful language. It’s almost as if you are stepping into a Zen garden; it’s absolutely beautiful. A really beautiful piece, and it uses a lot of Chinese gongs and instruments, little things…it’s really clever, but it’s trying to evoke a new language. But still, I wouldn’t say it’s “Chinese” music.
Is any of it “desert island music”?
I think you should look at it this way: When Bartok started to explore folk music, the very first piece wasn’t a masterpiece. Of course, this is just the beginning. I think this is exactly what this group is doing, which is admirable: to start a trend that inspires people to find intricacy and find expression in it.
I would say that this particular piece that the Chinese composer wrote—unfortunately, without piano—is a really great piece.
Which piece is this?
Is this going on tour, or just going to happen for the Jordan Hall performance?
We are really hoping that this will go on tour, because they did come several times, and then (for example) they visited Curtis last year. They did a residency of about 4 days, and they interacted with students and the composition department. It was wonderful: the students loved listening to it, and loved experiencing those instruments first-hand and learning how to play them. They were asked to write a short, 2-minute piece for any combination they wished to. They had a blast!
But in this case, are the 12 players—they’re flying in just for this one gig?
No, they actually have other gigs as well… They have appeared in Houston, they have appeared in California–
But not with you and the Borromeo String Quartet.
Not in this case. On this tour, they’re also doing some of their own stuff…some new music stuff in a school that’s on the West Coast, in the Los Angeles area; they’re playing there as well.
Will the Foundation for Chinese Performing Arts have an audience that’s more than half Asian for this material?
Possibly. We’re inviting a lot of the composition departments from various universities from around here, because I think this (of course) would be an experience for them, to hear other instruments…especially Chinese instruments that are not so easy to hear in this country.
I’m certainly hoping that people come with an opening mind. For me, it’s not really about Chinese culture. I think Kathy is wonderful because she wants to expose this through Chinese artists, but, really, the purpose of this is to create a new path for music, just as Bartok was doing.
Should we smoke anything before this concert?
[Laughs] No, I think you’ll feel smoked during the concert.
FOUR WINDS: Meng-Chieh Liu, Borromeo String Quartet and the Forbidden City Chamber Orchestra 紫禁城室內樂團
1 Jackdaws play in the cold water 寒鴉戲水
Ancient Tune from the Han Dynasty 漢調古曲
2 With the lilies, the song, and the stars 百合、歌謠和星辰 by David Ludwig
— for xiao, strings, and piano
3 See Without Looking 不見而明 by Daniel Walker
Shun Liu 劉順 , conductor
World Premiere (世界首演）
4 The Bright March光明行 by Xiaogang Ye 葉小綱
— for piano and Eastern and Western instruments
Shun Liu 劉順 , conductor
World Premiere of the chamber music version（室內樂版本世界首演）
5 The Prelude and the Dance for solo piano by Anlun Huang 黃安倫 1974
also known as “Chinese Rhapsody No.2”
Meng-Chieh Liu 劉孟捷, piano
6 Ten Changes and Five Variables 十變五化by Hang Zou鄒航
— for Chinese ensemble and string quartet
Shun Liu 劉順 , conductor
US Premiere (美國首演）