On a Chinese-American composer.
Earlier this year, a concert of the Buffalo Philharmonic Orchestra came to my attention. It was conducted by JoAnn Falletta, its music director. The program consisted of two familiar pieces, the Sibelius Violin Concerto and Scheherazade (Rimsky-Korsakov)—plus the Symphony No. 1 of Wang Jie.
You can listen to the symphony here.
Wang Jie is a Chinese-American composer, born in 1980. I have written about her at least once before, ten years ago.
At a concert, she was shown in a video, being interviewed. She said that, as a girl, she was sent far from her home to a music school. This was back in China. Wang Jie was the youngest girl in the dormitory, alone and miserable. “Nobody liked me,” she said. Her companions were two cassettes, which she listened to over and over. They contained three pieces of music: Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony, Tchaikovsky’s “Pathétique” Symphony, and Rimsky-Korsakov’s Scheherazade. These cassettes, she said, “kept me alive.”
I think of a line from a hymn: “Great are companions such as these.” I imagine she was tickled to have her Symphony No. 1 paired with Scheherazade in Buffalo.
In a program note, she says that she waited a long while before attempting a symphony—as did Brahms. There is something daunting about that genre. “Compared to the great Romantic symphonies,” Wang Jie writes, “this symphony is petite.” Its duration is about twelve minutes.
I would have loved to tell you that the short duration was inevitable because the symphony is sustained by one microscopic motif. The truth is more mundane. That was the program slot given to me—15 minutes or less.
I’m reminded of journalists, who fit their stories or thoughts into the space allotted.
Wang Jie’s Symphony No. 1 has many modern hallmarks, which I’ve noted many times, while reviewing any number of new pieces. It is “Chinesey”—a Chinese-Western hybrid. It has lots of “soft percussion,” meaning bells and the like. The music is full of “tinklies,” as I call them. It is sometimes woozy, sometimes squirmy, often busy. Rather cinematic.
So, yes, these are modern hallmarks. Yet the symphony is always interesting, which sounds like a weak word: “interesting.” It is not a weak word. Not common is the piece that truly holds your interest, I find.
In this symphony, there is genuine excitement. There is also simple, sighing music—unfussy and unpretentious. In fact, the whole symphony is like that: unfussy and unpretentious. There is a directness, a sincerity about it. Wang Jie is a clear communicator, whose love of music is obvious.
Don’t all composers love music? I suppose so. But in many cases, it’s not so obvious.
When this symphony ended, after its twelve minutes or so, I wanted to listen to it again, immediately. Which I did. Hard to think of higher praise.
Here is another excerpt from Wang Jie’s program note:
I composed my Symphony No. 1 during the darkest time of my life: a long and wretched divorce had just begun. Some years later, it made an appearance at the Minnesota Orchestra, where I met my future husband, Fred Child, during a live radio broadcast.
Fred Child is the host of radio’s Performance Today.
How did Wang Jie become a composer? Well,
I once had a crush on a concert pianist. For a few years, a concert pianist was all I wanted to become. I practiced six hours a day. I was not bad, but I wasn’t good enough to have a career. Meanwhile, one of my first attempts at composition won me a top prize at the Shanghai Conservatory. It was an assignment, and I didn’t even try very hard. At some point, I took a cold look at the facts: I’ve got a real shot at composing.
Elsewhere, Wang Jie has written a little memoir: “On Becoming a Composer.” I recommend it highly. And I hope that, one day, she will write a full, proper autobiography. It would be charming, interesting, and instructive. She is a talented woman, Wang Jie, and an utterly winning personality.
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