Mission: To seek and share inspiration

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Q&A With Zhou Tian


The CSO performs the world premiere of Zhou Tian's "Concerto for Orchestra" May 13 and 14


Fanfare Cincinnati: First, tell us a little about this new Concerto for Orchestra. What sort of things should the audiences listen for during this world premiere?

Zhou TianThe piece was written as a love letter to the symphony orchestra, with passages ranging from absolutely epic to extremely intimate. My intention was to write a piece of composition that celebrates music making and the sheer power of expressiveness of an orchestra through countless combinations of instrumental colors, melodies, and rhythms. And I could not think of a better medium than the concerto for orchestra to achieve this. (In fact, the original employment of the word “concerto” is to denote a combination of instruments.)

I imagine it’d be interesting to listen for how distinctively different the orchestra sounds through the four movements of the work: Glow (a warped voyage to splendidness, all from a monastic theme); Indigo (a musical postcard from a walk in the forest one late summer night); Seeker’s Scherzo (a restless game to find the true theme); and Intermezzo – Allegro (a fierce rhapsody wrapped in warmth and lushness).

FCThis is not the first new work you have written for the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra. What is unique about writing for this Orchestra?

ZT: I am incredibly lucky to have (now) two works written for and premiered by the Cincinnati Symphony. As a composer, I feel liberated and inspired when composing for this great orchestra. Liberated because by knowing the world-class musicianship and the affection and dedication for music, old and new, from all members of this orchestra would allow me to focus on writing the best music that I can. Inspired because I found that behind the power and edginess, there is an unmistakable sense of romanticism in the sound of the Cincinnati Symphony, which is also one quality that I believe my music often shows. So it was like working with someone who really knew what I wanted musically. It’s simply a dream come true.  

FCWhat are some of your greatest influences as a composer?

ZT: I would say my biggest three influences roughly coincide with three periods of my life: Chinese traditional music and art, from my experiences of growing up in China; my dad, a commercial composer/songwriter who encouraged me to play and appreciate jazz, pop, and world music while still practicing the Brahms; and American symphonists, from Barber to Ives, to my teachers such as Jennifer Higdon and Christopher Rouse. 

FCWhat are some of the greatest challenges about composing a Concerto for Orchestra? Rewards?

ZT: One of the biggest challenges is to not get carried away with “playing” with this powerful organization (a great symphony orchestra) which can do, basically, anything a composer throws at it, but to stay true to the music that I really wanted to express. If the magnificent orchestration didn’t match what my core music ideas intended to express, I reach for the eraser and move on. As I said previously, I wanted this to be a love letter to the orchestra, not a demonstration of what I can do technically as a composer. Rewards? I get to sit back and hear it being realized by world-class musicians. Sometimes a process of realizing a major work is in itself the biggest reward: experience, confidence and inspiration for future pieces.

FCThe CSO’s mission is “To seek and share inspiration.” Where do you seek and find inspiration?

ZT: Everywhere! My recent works were inspired by things as different as a disappearing past due to industrialization (Poem From A Vanished Time, a CSO commission), Father-daughter relations of Spanish hero El Cid (Viaje), poetry and calligraphy from the Song dynasty (Broken Ink), and connecting Bach with Erhu, a traditional Chinese instruments on violin (Violin Concerto “The Infinite Dance”). As a composer, I’d like to stay curious and openminded. In fact, your question just reminded me that perhaps the 3rd movement of the Concerto for Orchestra, Seeker’s Scherzo, is after all, autobiographical!