A composer in demand

Performances of six Zhou Tian compositions in a week closes a productive 2018.

Zhou Tian (right) with Maestro Yoshikazu Fukumura of the Shanghai Symphony Orchestra following the Asia premiere of Zhou’s Concerto for Orchestra.
Zhou Tian's Rise, inspired by diaries of soldiers in World War I, premiered with the Allentown Symphony. Here, Zhou rehearses with conductor Diane Wittry.
Rise, written in honor of the 100th anniversary of the end of World War I, was performed by the Allentown Symphony on November 11, 2018, Armistice Day.
Following the Rise premier, a veteran greeted Zhou Tian warmly after hearing Rise for the first time, a gesture Zhou feels was an honor.

Composition faculty Zhou Tian is used to staying active with composing and performing, but the end of 2018 marked an unusually busy time even for him.

In what he described as “a crazy but wonderful week of international premieres” last November, six different ensembles performed six different compositions of his, covering a spectrum of musical styles for orchestras, chamber ensembles, and band.

On November 9, Maestro Yoshikazu Fukumura conducted the Shanghai Symphony Orchestra for the Asia premiere of Zhou’s Concerto for Orchestra. Commissioned and recorded by the Cincinnati Symphony and Music Director Louis Langrée, Concerto for Orchestra was nominated for two 2018 GRAMMY Awards, including Best Contemporary Classical Composition for Zhou and Best Orchestral Performance for the Cincinnati Symphony.

On November 10 and 11, the Allentown Symphony performed the world premiere of Rise, a new work that Zhou wrote in honor of the 100th anniversary of the end of World War I.

“Rise was inspired by diaries of American soldiers during World War I,” Zhou said. “While visiting the Library of Congress, I was drawn to the personal and unmediated experiences and emotions that the soldiers themselves wrote on the battleground. Whether it is a brief note about the weather, a long entry about losing a comrade, or a touching moment when a letter from home arrives – such as ‘letters from home are like the heavens breaking through depressing clouds,’ penned by First Lieutenant Quincy Ayres – the soldiers’ stories moved me deeply.

“Rise attempts to convey the emotions of the simple servicemen – their fears, frustrations, love and awe – through the intimacy and power of the symphony orchestra, Zhou continued. “It is a musical postcard from America’s coming-of-age war, 100 years ago. I was particularly honored that the work was performed on 11/11, 2018, the 100th Anniversary of Armistice Day, and attended by veterans as well as Pennsylvania senator Pat Browne.”  

Rise was commissioned by the Allentown Symphony, the Spokane Symphony and the Erie Philharmonic with a grant awarded by the National Endowment for the Arts. Of the piece’s west coast premiere last month, The Spokesman-Review wrote, “In attempting to capture the bittersweet emotions contained in letters and diary entries from the battlefields of World War I, Zhou exhibits both impressive command of writing for orchestra and a distinctive voice. He is able to convey complex and elusive emotions to his listeners, regardless of their level of musical sophistication. The opportunity the Spokane Symphony has given us to sample contemporary concert music shows us that we live in a new Golden Age of musical composition, and fully as worthy of our attention as the great works of the past.”

In that same week in November, Zhou’s Hundred Antiques for two Chinese traditional instruments (erhu, pipa), violin, cello, and percussion was premiered at the Smithsonian in Washington D.C. (Nov. 8) and at Symphony Space in New York City (Nov. 9). Inspired by a traditional Chinese style of decorative arts and textiles known as the Hundred Antiques, the work was commissioned by the Smithsonian’s Freer Gallery of Art and the New York-based Music from China ensemble.

This quite active period of time also included the Shanghai Philharmonic Orchestra’s performance of The Palace of Nine Perfections, conducted by Liang Zhang, and the New York premiere of Viaje, for flute, cello and piano, by New England Soloists at the Bruno Walter theatre at Lincoln Center. The last performance of the week came from the University of North Carolina at Greensboro Wind Ensemble, conducted by John Locke, performing Zhou’s Petals of Fire, a work premiered by the MSU Wind Symphony and Kevin Sedatole at the 2017 CBDNA National Convention, at the North Carolina Music Educators Association Convention in Winston-Salem. While in China, Zhou also taught masterclasses at the Shanghai Conservatory.

“I feel incredibly blessed that my music travels afar,” Zhou said. “The beauty of being a composer is that your works become your musical messenger. It reaches completely different places and audiences, often simultaneously, through live performances of different musicians. In a globalized world, this can bring impact to places that we would otherwise never reach.

“I do hope that the message in my music also reads: ‘look what we are doing at MSU. Come to MSU.’”

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