Two years before Qigang Chen’s Central Conservatory classmates Tan Dun, Chen Yi, and Zhou Long relocated to the United States, Chen was the first of his illustrious composition class to leave China, in 1984, on being awarded a state grant to study in France. Having already fallen under the spell of Debussy and Ravel, he met Olivier Messiaen and became his final pupil.
The relationship would alter the young composer’s path forever. “In China, you learn to be sociable, subservient to everyone. If necessary, you must be entirely at the disposal of society,” says Chen, who put that philosophy in practice as music director for the 2008 Olympic Opening Ceremony in Beijing. “Messiaen was the first person to tell me you have to be true to yourself.”
For Chen, however, that also meant being true both to his native and adopted countries, which makes performing his music something of a cultural juggling act. New York Philharmonic audiences will encounter his Reflet d’un temps disparu for cello and orchestra, April 7–9, through an appropriately bicultural collaboration with two of Chen’s long-time champions: French cellist Gautier Capuçon and Chinese conductor and impresario Long Yu.
“I’m always happy to introduce one of China’s most distinguished composers to the international stage,” says Yu. But even more crucially, Yu also introduced Chen’s music to China when, as founding artistic director of the Beijing Music Festival, he presented China’s first all-Chen program in 2002. Within a year of meeting Chen backstage that night, Yu was conducting his works on a European tour with the Guangzhou Symphony Orchestra; he later led Chen’s oeuvre with orchestras in Germany, England, and even France.
Capuçon, for his part, discovered Reflet and its rather Proustian contemplation on the traditional tune Three Variations on Plum Blossom a decade or so later. “I’ve loved this piece from the beginning — its atmosphere, its ancient melody,” the cellist says. “I also really love the man himself and his peaceful way of being. Every time I work with Qigang he sings the melody, and I can actually hear the tradition he’s felt in this song since his youth. The piece is so poetic, so beautifully written. And what the music says around these melodies, of Chinese culture coming to France, is ultimately Qigang’s own personal story.”
“The original tune comes from deep in Chinese tradition,” Yu concurs. “The melody is 1,000 years old, but Qigang’s composition is written in a contemporary international language that pulls listeners into that world. It’s no longer Chinese, or even French. It’s Qigang’s music, like Das Lied von der Erde [a setting of German translations of Tang Dynasty poetry] is no longer Chinese or Germanic. It’s simply Mahler.”
Ken Smith, a winner of the ASCAP / Deems Taylor Award and the 2020 SOPA Award for arts and culture reporting, has covered music and culture on six continents for a wide range of print, broadcast, and internet media.