Composer conveys tragedy

May 01, 1991|By Stephen Wigler | Stephen Wigler,Sun Music Critic

Bright Sheng is a composer who loves melody, but his "H'un: In Memoriam 1966-1976," which David Zinman and the Baltimore Symphony will perform tomorrow and Friday, doesn't have a single tune. The piece commemorates the victims of China's cultural revolution, in which Sheng's grandparents were among the hundreds of thousands of educated Chinese who lost their lives. All intellectuals who smacked of Western corruption -- including a 10-year-old piano student like Sheng himself -- were declared "enemies of the people."

"The cultural revolution stir-fried the Chinese people," the 36-year-old composer says.

"H'un" translates as lacerations or scars and Sheng says he wanted to show "the tragedy and trauma of a genuine holocaust."

"But as I was writing," the composer continues, "I was frustrated because I couldn't get a tune. Then I realized that melody symbolizes something beautiful and that there was nothing beautiful about what had happened to my people."

"H'un" -- a deeply affecting, relentlessly driven 20-minute piece of music that has been compared to the symphonies of Shostakovich -- was runner up for the Pulitzer Prize in 1989. It has been played by major orchestras from New York to Chicago to San Francisco and has helped make Sheng one of the most talked-about young composers of the last few years.

He has come a long way since he arrived in New York in 1982 with an incomplete education, no knowledge of English and no money. First at Queens College and then at Columbia University he acquired a reputation that brought him to the attention of such important musicians as the pianist Peter Serkin, the conductor Gerard Schwarz and, most importantly of all, the late Leonard Bernstein. With Bernstein, Sheng enjoyed almost a father-son relationship. The great composer-conductor read through all of Sheng's scores, making suggestions and offering encouragement. With his health failing, he trusted and respected Sheng so much that he asked the young Chinese to orchestrate his last major work, "Arias and Barcarolles."

"Without him, I wouldn't be doing music," Sheng says. In 1985, he explains, he went through a paralyzing crisis. He had been told by his teachers that western music couldn't incorporate Eastern culture.

"Lenny told me that that was ridiculous, that all music -- whether Haydn or Mahler -- was fusion. He didn't tell me how to write it -- no great teacher does that -- but he made it possible for me to write again."

Two years later, Sheng showed Bernstein the manuscript of "H'un."

"When he finished, he lit a cigarette and for a few minutes he said nothing at all," Sheng recalls. "I was very worried. Finally, I asked, 'What do you think?'

" 'So sad,' Lenny said. 'But I want to do it.' Of course, he never lived to do it."

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