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About the Author
Ken Smith currently divides his time between New York (where he writes for Gramophone magazine) and Hong Kong (where he serves as the Asian–performing arts critic for the Financial Times). He is Co–Music Director of the recordings Dong Folk Songs and Miao Music for China's MediaFusion Group, and he won an ASCAP–Deems Taylor Award in 2008 for his liner notes to Gil Shaham's recording of The Butterfly Lovers Concerto for Violin. Ken is also the author of Fate! Luck! Chance!, published in 2008 by Chronicle Books.

Ancient Paths, Modern Voices Blog

"The Love" is in the Air

Juilliard Orchestra

“This first movement is about teenage love,” composer Tan Dun told members of the Juilliard Orchestra from the podium during a recent rehearsal. “This music is for you.”

Actually, the music is for violinist Cho-Liang Lin—“Professor Jimmy,” as Tan referred to him throughout the morning—an alumnus and current Juilliard faculty member. Tan describes his three-movement violin concerto, The Love—which premieres at Alice Tully Hall on Monday evening—as three stages of romantic life. Minus the romantic part, it also pretty much traces Tan’s relationship with Professor Jimmy.

The roots of the concerto date back to 1987, shortly after the composer landed in New York, when he was still trying to reconcile his musical mother tongue of Peking opera with his adopted post-serial language from conservatory. Several years later, the Taiwan-born Lin discovered Tan’s youthful piece—Out of Peking Opera—from the other direction, as a reflection of the Chinese culture he left behind as a child. A few revisions later, Lin premiered the work and recorded it with the Helsinki Philharmonic for Ondine. “Tan helped teach me to be Chinese,” he joked at the time.

This week, Tan was trying to do much the same with the Juilliard musicians, particularly percussionists unfamiliar with traditional Chinese instruments. From his earlier 15-minute piece—essentially Farewell my Concubine filtered through the violin concertos of Bartók and Berg—Tan has now fashioned a full 30-minute concerto with a percussion-heavy opening that the composer calls “atonal rock ’n’ roll.” It brought back a few memories for Lin, recalling that when he played the earlier piece in Shanghai, the Western-trained Chinese percussionists didn’t know how to play the instruments either.

“None of them could get the gong to make its upward sound,” he said. “They had to learn from the stagehand, who used to be a Peking opera player.”

Lin, who went through rehearsal at Juilliard checking the new version against the old for typos, admits that, despite some radically different treatment in the orchestra, the requirements for the soloist are much the same. “Actually, I’m suppose to play Out of Peking Opera next week at the Segerstrom Center,” he says. “I just need to make sure I bring the right music.”

Posted by Ken Smith

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Chinese Translation (Traditional Characters)
Chinese Translation (Simplified Characters)