Tag: orchestral music

Bright Sheng: My Father’s Letter and Bernstein’s Question

Bright Sheng sitting in front of his grand piano

We’ve been wanting to talk with Bright Sheng for years, but given his teaching schedule at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor and his commitments to participate in performances of his music either as a pianist or a conductor all over the world, he has been difficult to pin down. But when we finally met with him on Presidents’ Day in his pied-à-terre across the street from Lincoln Center, it proved to be worth the wait.

I have long been eager to talk with him about several of his compositions, particularly his works for the orchestra and the operatic stage which were inspired either by ancient folktales or extremely unsettling contemporary topics or a combination of the two. I wanted to know the back story of the work that put him on the map, H’un (Lacerations), which is a searing orchestral composition inspired by the Cultural Revolution he lived through in the People’s Republic of China. I was very curious about his sympathetic portrait of Madame Mao, one of that tragic epoch’s masterminds, in his opera of the same name, as well as his more recent hyper-romantic Dream of the Red Chamber based on one of the most celebrated classical Chinese novels. I also wanted to know why he claimed that his first opera, The Song of Majnun, which is based on a 12th century Persian love story, was in some way a response to the Tiananmen Square incident and his feelings that he’d never be able to return to his homeland.

  • Music at least expresses one thing if nothing else: the emotions or mood.

    Bright Sheng, composer
  • I often like to say that I’m 100% Chinese and 100% American.

    Bright Sheng, composer
  • In Shanghai, I had a tutor who came to the house and taught me piano every week. But when I went to Tibet people really didn’t have enough food.

    Bright Sheng, composer
  • I really think Boulez destroyed a generation of composers.

    Bright Sheng, composer
  • I was extremely lucky because I met Leonard Bernstein when I was a student at Tanglewood.

    Bright Sheng, composer
  • I’ve strived through the years to achieve this long phrase... I felt the gesture of that long phrase versus Chinese phrases.

    Bright Sheng, composer
  • Your work has to reach the audience.  You have to touch them emotionally.

    Bright Sheng, composer
  • I am drawn to ill-fated loved stories. Over the sleeve romanticism is part of me.

    Bright Sheng, composer
  • I always wanted to kill Mao, but I can’t kill him in real life. So I want to kill him in my opera.

    Bright Sheng, composer
  • Everything we do is autobiographical.

    Bright Sheng, composer

But what I did not anticipate was how deeply Sheng is concerned about directly moving audiences in whatever format or style he is working in and how passionate he would be about sharing what led him to his aesthetic positions. An early epiphany was his being sent to Tibet during the Cultural Revolution years and discovering how important participating in musical performances was to people there even though they didn’t have enough food to eat. Even more impactful on him personally was a ten-page letter from his father, who had relocated to New York City while Sheng was still a student at Shanghai Conservatory, warning him not to assume he’d be able to eke out a musical career if he immigrated to the United States. But, perhaps what was most significant was his tutelage under the legendary Leonard Bernstein who lavished praise and disdain with equal aplomb.

My father was asking: “Why does a society support art, or a musician, or a composer? Why should society? The society needs food and needs people to fix their cars, but they don’t need a composer. Why is this important?” Bernstein asked the other side of question: “What is your responsibility as an artist if you asked the society to support you?” I think the answer is actually very simple. Your work has to reach the audience. You have to touch them emotionally. Touch their nerves. Touch their emotions. Then you did your work and can say, “Hey, support me.”


Bright Sheng in conversation with Frank J. Oteri in Sheng’s New York City apartment
February 18, 2019—12:00 p.m.
Video presentation by Molly Sheridan