Violinist Wendy Toh and the Eastman School Symphony Orchestra give the world premiere performance of a violin concerto by Zoe Wang this Wednesday at 8pm in Kodak Hall at Eastman Theatre. We were able to catch up over email about the music and their other projects as graduate students at the Eastman School of Music. Enjoy!
Q: Congratulations, Zoe, on winning Eastman School’s Belle Gitleman award in 2016 for Five Wright Songs and The Ecstasy of Six Persian Poems. Please tell us about your creative process.
In retrospect, my music has always been connected to an extra-musical source: it could be a painting, literature, or stories in my life. For instance, Five Wright Songs are a set of song cycle based on five poems by James Arlington Wright dedicate to my grandfather, who passed away a few months before I wrote the piece. The Ecstasy was commissioned by Benson Creativity Forum and the Deviant Septet. Every movement depicts a short poem by the Persian astronomer and poet Omar Khayyam. It could also be references of other composers - in the past summer I participated in the International Dvorak Composition Competition in Prague and was awarded the first prize. As part of the final round, I was asked to compose an orchestral piece and a piano variation in five days. Both pieces drew upon influences of great Eastern European composers such as Antonin Dvorak and Béla Bartok. In the case of the Violin Concerto No.1, it references English Romantic painter J. W. Turner’s On the Lucerne.
Q: (Zoe) Tell us about your new Violin Concerto. So exciting! Is there a story behind it?
The sources of ideas behind my compositions are always triggered by events in my life. About a year ago, I just completed my first orchestral piece, and was really inspired to write another one. It was also the time when I performed collaborative piano repertoire extensively. My long term musical partner, who also happens to be my boyfriend is a violinist I collaborate with at Eastman. Among the pieces we played, I was especially fascinated by Korngold’s Violin Concerto. A few months later I decided to compose my own concerto. The experience of collaborating with a violinist inspired me to write this piece.
Q: Zoe, who are your biggest musical influences?
I started studying the piano at the age of 6. I played a range of classical music pieces but the idea of composing never crossed my mind until one day I heard Claude Debussy’s piano piece Clair de lune. Impressionism awakened a voice in me that told me that I wanted to compose just like these composers did. My favourite composer is Maurice Ravel. I am also intrigued by composers who write in impressionism and neo-classical styles. In my childhood, I listened to a lot of jazz, R&B, and other styles in the pop genre. That probably explains my frequent use of chords with 7ths, 9ths, or more notes which certainly relates to the jazz harmonic language.
Q: Wendy, what's challenging about the Violin Concerto you'll premiere with the Eastman School Symphony Orchestra?
The challenge in performing any piece of music that is well written is that it is open to infinite possibilities in its interpretation, just like the Violin Concerto by Zoe. There are so many ways one could react to each expression that it takes some degree of familiarity with the material to settle on a particular way. Yet, in the process of getting acquainted with this piece, I found a personal connection with this piece that I have not experienced in other music. The creative freedom of a premiere leads to a personal relationship with this piece, which has been an absolutely rewarding journey.
Q: (Wendy) How would you describe it? What do you love about it?
The Violin Concerto is a colorful and imaginative piece. It presents a visceral image of sea waves with a narrative trajectory in the violin part, which then leads to a dreamy and improvisatory second theme. Zoe fantastically relates the first and second themes through transitions which are filled with shimmery textures that sparkle with brilliance. The transitions and atmospheric moments of magical nostalgia are very charming events in the piece. I also love that a lot of the gestures are derived from nature (marine seascape) and human (vocal gestures, glissandi, and improvisations), thus they feel very natural on the violin.
Q: Both of you, what's come up in rehearsals and in conversations about the new concerto?
ZW: It is an amazing experience collaborating with Wendy. I write music intuitively. However, she always has a way of knowing what I have in mind. She is able to make my music come alive by transforming my notated score into ideas and gestures that have a life of their own through her imagination and execution. She offers great suggestions in musical details which I have have not been aware of in writing the piece and those are the best moments in our discussions.
WT: Our conversations have revolved around finding ways to finesse an expression through experiments on the violin and with the printed notation. With the orchestra, we experimented with ways in which we could preserve clear articulation of notes yet maintain the dreamy character of the second theme, for instance, in the acoustics of Kodak Hall.
Q: Why are you excited about the premiere?
ZW: As a composer, it is my greatest joy to have my music performed and heard. I am excited to share my music with others. In the performances of my music, I feel that my creative process has come to a full cycle from its very first existence as an idea or an image to its realization.
WT: I am always excited to bring music of our times to live. It is representative of our reactions to musical traditions that came before us while keeping music relevant today. The Eastman School Symphony Orchestra led by conductor Garrett Wellenstein is an amazing team to work with and they are incredible musicians. Zoe has been an absolute joy to work with and has gifted us with such a magnificent work. I am truly honored to be working with such fine musicians and I am looking forward to the premiere!