The cultural revolution, to paraphrase Chairman Mao, was hardly a dinner party, but that decade-long campaign of terror nonetheless yielded some positive dividends of a musical sort for Bright Sheng, the first of his famous generation of Chinese-born composers to attract attention in the West.
His 1988 breakthrough piece, H'un (Lacerations): In Memoriam 1966-76, was a bracing symphonic response to Communist atrocities reminiscent of Shostakovich at his most bitter. Some 15 years later, Mr. Sheng returned to the subject, but with a very different approach, with Madame Mao, an operatic treatment of the woman and her times that made its title character seem almost sympathetic.
For the New York City Ballet, however, where Mr. Sheng begins a two-year stint as Composer in Residence this month, the most relevant memories of his youth come in the small details rather than the grand strokes. "During the Cultural Revolution I was the pianist for the local song-and-dance troupe," says Mr. Sheng, who was relocated from coastal Shanghai to remote Qinghai, near the Tibetan border. "The folk dancers during that time had all trained in classical ballet with the Russians, so as a result I had to learn all the basic steps."Combined with his after-hours collecting of regional folk melodies, that experience helped define Mr. Sheng's early musical development. After the Cultural Revolution, as a student at the newly reopened Shanghai Conservatory, the pianist began thinking of himself as a composer (with the occasional conducting classes on the side). After relocating to New York in 1982, his compositional voice soon blossomed and, in conscious homage to Bartók, he began spinning those seminal folk influences into a distinctively modernist idiom.
"I gave myself five years in New York to see if I could survive as a composer," Mr. Sheng recalls. During his second year, he won the Charles Ives Scholarship Award from the American Academy and Institute of Arts and Letters; in his third, he met Leonard Bernstein, the most prominent of his future musical mentors. Soon he forgot about the five-year plan.
Now having served for a decade on the faculty of the University of Michigan (where he was appointed the Leonard Bernstein Distinguished University Professor of Composition in 2003), Mr. Sheng has cultivated a string of musical champions‹including the conductors Gerard Schwarz and Christophe Eschenbach‹and accepted a shelf full of awards, the most prominent being his 2001 "genius" grant from the MacArthur Foundation. Even still, Mr. Sheng's conception of music remains essentially "a song and a dance."
"Rhythm is still very important to me," the composer admits. "Both my operas, The Silver River and Madame Mao, have dance numbers. And if you look at some of my orchestral works‹pieces like Tibetan Swing‹you'll find that even my symphonic music has a dance-like quality."
It was precisely that dance-like quality that first attracted NYCB Music Director Andrea Quinn, who describes herself without reservation as "a great fan" of Mr. Sheng's work. "Bright's music is accessible without being simplistic, which is a difficult balance," she says. "He writes music that's danceable, which is probably the most important thing to us artistically. And of course, he has experience conducting and working with dancers."
As far as the NYCB's Artist in Residence program was concerned, however, it was Mr. Sheng's practical experience that sealed the deal. The program was begun in 2000 to bring artists of various disciplines to New York City Ballet for an extended period of time; to date, the program has welcomed costume designers, conductors, and a choreographer. Mr. Sheng's residency should be one of close collaboration with many of City Ballet's artists. "With our other resident artists‹ conductors for example‹it was about giving them ballet experience," Ms. Quinn explains. "For a composer, we wanted someone on an entirely different career level‹someone not just interested in writing ballet music but interested in the entire ballet process."Although the showpiece of Mr. Sheng's residency will be a 30-minute ballet score, to be performed either during or after his tenure, the composer will also be writing a shorter piece and will be heavily involved in rehearsals with both the dancers and the orchestra, as well as participating in the Company's educational projects. Mr. Sheng will be not only conducting his own works, Ms. Quinn hopes, but also other pieces in the season.
Mr. Sheng immediately found both the sincerity of the request and the broad dimensions of the NYCB residency appealing. "The problem with having resident composers in many arts organizations is that nobody wants us," he says. "We might get invited by the administration, but when it comes down to actually working with an orchestra or an opera company, they don't really need us because they already have Beethoven and Puccini. In this case I wanted to make sure right away that I would become part of the Company's daily operation."
Mr. Sheng says he's proud to join a lineage of composers associated with NYCB, from Stravinsky and Hindemith, who collaborated with Balanchine, to more recent figures like John Adams, Michael Torke, Charles Wuorinen, and James MacMillan. As Ms. Quinn adds with some pride, NYCB was one of the original co-commissioners of the Adams Violin Concerto, and this season the Company will be premiering a new ballet by Peter Martins to a co-commissioned score by Pulitzer Prize-winner Christopher Rouse.
On another level, though, Mr. Sheng sees the residency as a way to broaden his own artistic horizons. His previous experience with ballet companies involved dances being choreographed to existing orchestral pieces, and in symphonic music, the narrative has to unfold in purely musical terms. At NYCB Mr. Sheng will be involved in a genuine collaboration with the Company, starting with the initial conception of the work.
"Not too long ago, I found out that the ideas for The Rite of Spring and Petroushka came directly from Stravinsky, not from the choreographer," Mr. Sheng says. "It's exciting to think that such lasting artistic concepts can be generated by the music. But what I think I'm most looking forward to is a total collaboration with the dancers. As art forms, both music and dance are abstract, but in both, we usually work with very specific details. Before I sit down and write the music, I need to find out exactly what characters the dancers have in mind, and how they want to dance."
Ken Smith is the North American correspondent for Gramophone Magazine and the Asian performing arts critic for the Financial Times.