Bright Sheng is a pianist, conductor, and composer of music in various genres, including opera, orchestral, and chamber music. He’s also a teacher and musicologist, having studied both Eastern and Western music extensively. His resume includes heavy-duty recognition, such as the Guggenheim Fellowship and the MacArthur “Genius” award. The weekend of July 20-22, as part of its Behind the Cultural Revolution series, Chamber Music Northwest presented two performances of Sheng’s opera The Silver River and other compositions. I spoke to him on July 16, 2018.
Born in Shanghai, Sheng was nearly ready for music school when the Red Guard took away his piano and sent him to the the province of Qinghai in Eastern Tibet. Fortunately, the seven years he spent there were not wasted. His hosts found out that he could play the piano (the only piano there), and he became the local musician and entertainer. With no teacher or books, he taught himself music theory and made an intensive study of the local folk music. After the Cultural Revolution, he made up for lost time. He got a B.A. at the Shanghai Conservatory of Music, left for the U.S. and earned a doctorate in composition from Columbia University where one of his mentors was Leonard Bernstein. The name, “Sheng,” means “grand,” and “Bright” is the actual translation of his Chinese name, “Liang.” He explained with a chuckle, “I didn’t really want a Western name, so I chose ‘Bright’ and I think it helped with my career because it sticks.” He’s lived up to his name.
Co-commissioned by Chamber Music Northwest, the Silver River premiered at the Santa Fe Chamber Music Festival in 1997, in a relatively simple performance, which Sheng concluded would be portable. The performance was popular with the audience, so Nigel Redden, director at South Carolina’s Spoleto Festival, took it on and put together an elaborate production. There was a huge tower with people coming down from heaven and a big heated water tank, representing the river, in which the actors could perform. Since then, that production has gone on to New York, Philadelphia, and Singapore. Sheng always thought that it would be beyond the scope of Chamber Music Northwest.
But recently, CMNW leadership decided it would be feasible to stage a production more like the original, simpler version. Sheng was delighted. “I must say that I’m totally touched by the effort the Festival has put together for this thing. Bobby (Director Robert Longbottom) saw the Lincoln Center production and he liked it. I think he’s really a terrific dramatist.”
“It’s a combination of theater and musical, and also a combination of dance and Chinese opera,” Sheng said of his opera. The hard part is that actors must take their cues from the music rather than from lines, he explained. They have to listen to the music, unfamiliar as it is, learn their cues and internalize everything, a process that can take quite a while. “You know,” he states, “ever since the Spoleto production I always wanted to have a new approach to this show so that it could survive. I must say I’m very happy to see it this way.”
Bright Sheng worked with Yo Yo Ma in the development of the Silk Road Project. In fact, he took a trip to various places along the Silk Road to research the development of Chinese music. “The Chinese think they invented everything,” he said, “and I was taught that way when I was a child.” But he found much about the roots of Chinese culture in Central Asia, along the Silk Road. For example, he maintains that the pipa, historically prominent in Chinese music, was developed by the Babylonians. It was the grandmother of the lute family, from which came the guitar, and eventually the violin and the cello, and now the pipa is the quintessential Chinese instrument.
As a musicologist, he is committed to the study of music from all cultures. World music is a part of the curriculum at the University of Michigan where he teaches, as it is in most universities. “I’m sure you’ve gone to a Chinese restaurant here in Portland, and you may have thought it was pretty good. But until you go to China, you find it’s not what you thought. The same thing with Western food in China.” He is convinced that a French restaurant in Bejing or even Shanghai isn’t really authentic because the material, the food itself, is not from France.
Sheng works to have a thorough understanding of the music of each culture, Eastern and Western. “That is my emphasis. I don’t want to put soy sauce on filet mignon. I really want to know what soy sauce is doing. So this is something that we started with Yo Yo and the Silk Road Project. First, to find the roots of the Chinese culture.”
He applies the same diligence to the study of Western music. For example, he has made a lovely orchestration of Brahms’s Sonata No. 118, called Black Swan. He regularly conducts the Western classics in China and Chinese music in the West. When I asked him about audience reaction to his music— whether in Shanghai listeners say, Oh, that’s so Western, and the people in New York say, Oh, that’s so Chinese — he replied, “That’s probably inevitable. But it’s irrelevant! The whole point is if my music gets you. Does it touch you?”
Bridge Across Cultures
He mentioned that cross-cultural artists could, because of their cultural background, be seen as a bridge. For example, Yo Yo Ma was born in the West and was trained as a Western classical musician, but, according to Sheng, “his interest is more than just playing cello concertos every day.” Hence the Silk Road Project, among others.
Sheng himself is an excellent example of a cross-cultural emissary. His music draws on both Eastern and Western instruments and themes. His articles appear in both Asian and American venues — including “Bartok, the Chinese Composer,” published by the Smithsonian. He guest conducts orchestras all over the world. He is translating the Brahms German Requiem into Chinese. In his spare time he founded and now directs an annual music festival in Hong Kong called The Intimacy of Creativity — The Bright Sheng Partnership: Composers Meet Performers.
Sheng believes that the next hundred years will bring much more cross-cultural music, that the lines between musical genres will be even more blurred than they are now, and that things will merge naturally. “I have a theory that I didn’t get a chance to practice myself, but ideally, all races should just mix, and that will erase the racial and political tensions. The U.S. is the foremost country doing that. You know, interracial marriage is not a big deal anymore. But it still is other places.”
He acknowledges that a side-effect of this merging will be the loss of some of the unique elements of certain cultures. He talked about how with the influx into Hong Kong of people from the mainland, the demand for food has changed and the authentic Cantonese cuisine has started to blend, as has the Cantonese language. But now you can get authentic Cantonese food in Beijing! It’s all a matter of demand. It takes an effort to preserve valued elements of the old cultures. It is an effort that engaged him as a teenager during the Cultural Revolution, and engages him still as a musicologist.
Dream of the Red Chamber
As he did in Silver River, Bright Sheng selected the well known playwright David Henry Hwang as his co-librettist for his full length opera, The Dream of the Red Chamber. The opera premiered in San Francisco in 2016 to public and critical acclaim. The opera is based on what he called the most beloved novel in Chinese history, written by Cao Xueqin in the mid 18th Century during the Qing Dynasty. Scholars in China, known as Redologists, can spend their whole lives studying this book.
Sheng recounted how these scholars scrutinized the performances he conducted in China. “A whole fleet of Redologists came without letting me know. They followed us on our tour in China. Then they said they wanted to have a public symposium on the opera and the Dream of the Red Chamber. It was the five major media, TV and all that, and I was really nervous!” He said that in the end, they all agreed that the opera was okay. They acknowledged that Sheng and Hwang and changed it a bit, but it was a good story and the spirit of the novel was still there. “Most important,” said Sheng, “they were moved. One high-up scholar said in the beginning he was analyzing it, but by a quarter of the way into it, he was totally absorbed by the story and the music. He said, ‘I didn’t care. By the end I was touched.’”
This was Sheng’s ultimate goal, that people would be touched. “Once you think about it,” he says, Chinese or Americans, “these are humans, everybody’s human. Whether you know anything about Chinese culture or you just love opera. If I can make you cry when you go to the opera, when you walk out you have a red eye, I have succeeded.”