Last night, during the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra’s performance, there was a playful silkworm weaving a set of “threads” in my imagination. It was making wonderful connections in my thoughts between Angel Lam’s Awakening from a Disappearing Garden, Stravinsky’s The Nightingale, and (surprisingly) my own distant past in China.
Angel Lam’s Awakening from a Disappearing Garden is a cello concerto with narration that depicts a dream sequence occurring between 1953 and 2007. The sequence revolves around the narrator’s character, Lao Wu (Number Five). Wearing a long, white, Chinese-style dress, the narrator (composer Angel Lam), could have been the character she was describing in the 1953 episode. Yo-Yo Ma’s cello sonorities captured the evocative mood, transporting me to remote worlds with a backdrop of musical references to the present (textured string sonorities) and the past (traditional Chinese opera gongs and temple bells).
The second work of the evening, Stravinsky’s The Nightingale, is based on a fairy tale by Hans Christian Andersen. It tells the fanciful story of a Chinese emperor and a mythical nightingale, whose power restores life to the dying Emperor. In this concert version of Stravinsky’s opera, a few small props and the singer’s imaginative choreography caused my mind’s eye to superimpose the missing details traditionally provided by stage settings.
Now, back to the little silkworm that was weaving connections to my own experiences in China:
While listening to Lam’s words about the woman in the 1950s, who is then transported to 2007, my own deep memories began to surface. When I was a little girl in the 1960s, I performed on the piano for Mao Zedong. It was a cloudy day at China’s Youth Palace in Shanghai, and being so young, I certainly didn’t understand the significance of having such an audience! In Stravinsky’s opera, the nightingale makes the Emperor unexpectedly feel something very tender with its song. Perhaps I was not unlike the nightingale.
Remembering a recent visit to China, I also feel connected to Lam’s character, Number Five, in her more current, modern world. Indeed, living in the fast-paced world of business and technology, which I experience here every day, is in complete contrast with my former life in Shanghai. Looking back now, that childhood memory of playing for Mao seems like a dream. But it really did happen. In a brief instant, the past seems like the present.
Angel Lam’s and Stravinsky’s works were all about distant dreams and myths, but last night they were also and evocation of at least one reality—my own.
Posted by Yee Ping Wu, co-founder of Knoa Software and a graduate of The Juilliard School