Interview with Composer Li Yun

Composer Li Yun lives in Beijing, where she is a graduate student at the China Conservatory of Music. Her music incorporates elements of Chinese folk music in combination with modern influences. Her piece Four Scenes from Li Qingzhao was premiered on the final CSB concert, Cincinnati – Beijing.

CSB: Could you tell us about your musical activities, and about the work featured on this concert?

LY: At the moment, most of my activities are centered in China. I take special inspiration from my research on folk music; this involves visiting various localities (most recently in Gansu and Hunan provinces), where I listen to, make field recordings of, and transcribe folk songs.

However, I am interested not solely in Chinese folk song, but also in looking to ancient forms of Chinese music and the ideas it presents as a point of departure. For instance, in this piece, the second movement explores ideas from guqin through the double bass. Sometimes it is in the form of imitation (as with the harmonics), but mostly this is in terms of atmosphere. The poet Li Qingzhao – who was refined and highly educated – almost definitely would have played guqin. I see this movement as a conversation across our different art forms and time periods.

CSB: Could you describe your compositional process?

LY: The most important part is for me to have a good feeling for the abstract and literal connotations I want to include in the work. For example, in the third movement of this work, the music is quite simple, but there are several layers of meaning interacting with one another.

CSB: What is your impression of the music scene in Beijing?

LY: There are many perspectives and concerts here; after all, two of the main conservatories in China are in Beijing.

But there is more than just music: both Beijing’s cultural scene (in a historical sense) and the concentration of modern culture found here are extremely rich. You see hutongs and modern buildings side-by-side, and this stark contrast between antiquity and modernity feels to me like the theme of our times.

Moreover, this imagery cannot disappear when I sit down at the piano. I want to explore the contrasts of China in my musical language to find the balance point.

CSB: What upcoming projects are on your radar?

LY: I am currently writing a new orchestral piece and a chamber opera. Recently I have become more and more interested in voice and in exploring dramatic possibilities in my music.

Interview with Composer Wenhui Xie

As a resident composer at the MacDowell Colony, Wenhui Xie‘s music has been aired as part of “Composer of the Week” on BBC Radio 3, and has been performed throughout China, the United States and Europe by performers including the China National Symphony Orchestra, the Shanghai Philharmonic Orchestra, the Aspen Music Festival Orchestra, the NODUS Ensemble in the United States, the Orkest de Ereprijs in the Netherlands, the Accademia Chigiana Ensemble in Italy, and the Broadcasting Symphony Orchestra in Serbia. Wenhui is currently an Associate Professor of Composition at the China Conservatory of Music in Beijing.

Her new work for solo double bass, Étude, will be premiered by Kate Alexandra on our final CSB concert, Cincinnati Soundbox: Cincinnati – Beijing. Join us on June 23 at the 21c Museum Hotel Cincinnati!

CSB: What is your musical background?

WHX: I am both a composer and pianist. I received my Doctor of Musical Arts degree from the University of Cincinnati College-Conservatory of Music, and before that, a Master of Music from the China Conservatory of Music in Beijing. My principal composition teachers throughout my studies included Joel Hoffman, Allen Otte, Michael Fiday, Mara Helmuth and Wanchun Shi.

CSB: How was your time in Cincinnati formative in your development as a composer?

WHX: Cincinnati is my second hometown. I miss all of my friends in Cincinnati, and the time I spent studying at CCM left a big impression on me as an artist. Because of the scholarships and travel funding I received while I was a doctoral student at CCM in 2007-2011, I was able to make connections with musicians and artists all over the world. The open-minded performers and audience members I encountered then continue to inspire me to create music as a composer.

CSB: Could you share some of the projects you have taken on as a composer since leaving Cincinnati?

WHX: My recent commissions have included works for symphony orchestra, Chinese traditional orchestra, mixed chamber ensembles, and soloists. Since 2015, I have focused on composing five orchestral works, which have been premiered and preformed in Beijing, Shanghai, Hong Kong, as well as Belgrade, Serbia.

CSB: Could you tell us about the work on this concert? What was the compositional process for it like?

WHX: It is a solo double bass work, which is named Étude. The inspiration for this piece is taken from my two kids. They wanted to improve their aural skills by listening to a work which used few pitches in a lower register, so I decided to write one for them. It will be a world premiere on this concert, and I hope you enjoy it.

CSB: What upcoming projects are on your radar?

WHX: Upcoming projects include a chamber orchestra work with cimbalom that will be performed in October, and an orchestral work and new duo for November 2019. They will all be premiered in Beijing.

Thank You

On behalf of the CSB team, thank you to everyone who has joined us over the course of the past four years. With the close of this season, we have decided to move in new directions and conclude Soundbox’s activities. We have had a great run!

Please do consider joining us for our two final events on May 12, 2019 and June 23, 2019. Both concerts are at 7 PM at the 21c Museum Hotel Cincinnati.

– Rachel & Ivan

Interview with the Vocalists of Music for Three

The vocalists of Music for Three (mezzo-soprano Ellen Graham, soprano Jackie Stevens, and mezzo-soprano Lauren McAllister) sat down with us to discuss this week’s concert.

Join us on May 12 at 7 PM at the 21c Museum Hotel Cincinnati.

CSB: Could you tell us a bit about your past experiences singing together?

LM: I have been singing with these awesome performers for several years. We have worked together on a variety of concerts with many ensembles in Cincinnati. Jackie and Ellen are phenomenal musicians with gorgeous voices, and I am so glad to take part in this unique project with them!

JS: Lauren and I have done so many gigs together, I can’t count them. We love working together. One of my favorite experiences with Lauren was performing Pergolesi’s Stabat Mater with Cincinnati Chamber Opera. It’s a two woman show of baroque yumminess, and we’ve been talking about doing it again ever since!

Additionally, Ellen and I both sing at Knox Presbyterian, so we see each other twice on a weekly basis. Outside of church choir, we have done a few other choral gigs together, so I am excited to work with her in a closer capacity.

EG: Jackie and I sing together at Knox Presbyterian and Collegium Cincinnati, though our first time singing together was actually a gig singing Finnish folk music for trio women’s voices, so this is a format we are familiar with. Lauren and I met in the Cincinnati Opera Chorus, but sing together with a variety of groups. 

CSB: What past collaborations have you shared with the composers on this concert?

EG: This is my first time working with Cincinnati Soundbox and this group of composers. I am looking forward to future collaborations, though! 

LM: I have performed choral works by Laura Harrison and Julia Seeholzer while at CCM. Stephen Variames and I work together often; I performed his set of songs for Mezzo and Baritone for the Lynx Project’s Autism Advocacy Project, and I have been fortunate to read through many of his other works for voice. We also have something exciting in the works for next year — stay tuned!

JS: Oh gosh, where do I begin? Ellen Harrison has been a wonderful mentor and friend to me over the past few years. I have sung and recorded many of her pieces for solo voice and obligato instruments and participated in a recording session of one of her choral pieces. I find her music hauntingly beautiful and love singing it!

Julia and I did our masters degrees together and I premiered a song cycle of hers on one of my doctoral recitals. I find her music edgy and powerful with moments of beautiful tenderness. I cannot wait to see what she contributes over the course of her compositional career.

I am excited to perform Laura’s piece! She and I have been trying to make our schedules line up for years, so it will be lovely to finally perform one of her works. I look forward to growing more familiar with her music.

Stephen Variames and I go back way back to 2015 when we were at CCM together. We have gigged together on many occasions, and he is a fantastic musician and collaborator. This is the first time I get to perform a composition of his!

CSB: How have you approached the new works written for this concert?

LM: I spend a lot of time with each text, then I focus on the interplay between voices (for example, which voice highlights an interesting harmonic structure or an important segment of text?).

EG: After Lauren and I sorted out who would sing which mezzo line in which pieces, I started by learning the texts for each work.

JS: New music requires a special kind if diligence. A lot of time has been spent at the piano getting to know the unique harmonic languages of each of these composers.  Also… Polish… Need I say more?

CSB: Were there any specific challenges you faced while preparing these pieces?

LM: This concert has given me the opportunity to push myself linguistically. This will be my first experience singing in Polish.

JS: Polish is new to me! That has been challenging. 

EG: I have never sung in Polish before.  

CSB: What are other upcoming projects on your radar?

LM: I am grateful to have a busy few months ahead! I am excited to travel back and forth to Austin to sing with the choral ensemble Conspirare. I have a second Cincinnati Soundbox concert featuring voice, percussion, and bass, I am covering the role of Ännchen in Queen City Opera’s Der Freischütz,  and I have two upcoming recitals in the works to be announced soon. 

JS: I’ll be singing the soprano solos in A Child of Our Time with Walnut Hills High School along with Lauren.

EG: I am making my mainstage debut with Cincinnati Opera singing the role of Dryade in Ariadne auf Naxos. The spring has been busy, so I’m looking forward to a little break after that.

Movers & Makers Recommends Music for Three

“What better place to hear new music than in a temple to new art? The 21c Museum Hotel, where art is the centerpiece, has partnered with Soundbox to present intimate opportunities to experience new works. Outstanding local vocalists Ellen Graham, Jackie Stevens, and Lauren McAllister will share premieres of five duos and trios by composers with ties to Cincinnati: Ellen Ruth Harrison (to poems by Norman Finkelstein), Stephen Variames, Laura Harrison, Julia Seeholzer and Rachel C. Walker.”

– Movers & Makers, What to Do/Hear/See … April 24-30

Interview with Composer Stephen Variames

Stephen Variames is a composer, pianist, and vocal coach based in Cincinnati. He has written two new works for this week’s Music for Three which draw upon the poetry of mezzo-soprano Shannon Keegan: Their Words and A Question. Join us for the premieres at 7 PM on Sunday, 28 April at the 21c Museum Hotel Cincinnati, featuring vocalists Jackie Stevens, Lauren McAllister, and Ellen Graham.

CSB: What is your background as a composer?

SV: My undergraduate degree was in composition, focusing mainly on vocal music. I have done two musicals, a number of song cycles, and an opera.

CSB: How would you describe the musical landscape in Cincinnati?

SV: The musical landscape in Cincinnati is incredibly diverse. At one end, you can find classical performances that would rival any other city; at the other, chorus and bands are everywhere. 

CSB: You have collaborated with some of the singers in the trio previously. How did those collaborations inform the new work you composed for this event?

SV: Since I’ve worked with all three singers, it was much easier to know their vocal style and the strongest points of their ranges.

CSB: What was the compositional process for this piece like?

SV: The process for this piece was rather fun. Since it is for female voices, I wanted the text to be female-driven. I remembered seeing poetry by Shannon Keegan before, and since I play for her – she is also a singer, I thought this would be the perfect freshman collaboration. Creating a sound world for these words was my main focus.

CSB: What upcoming projects are on your radar?

SV: Upcoming projects include: Leaving Vaughan Behind, a one act opera; a song cycle in Spanish in July; and a song cycle for Lauren McAllister in December!

Composer Ellen Harrison on “Lost Time”

Composer Ellen Ruth Harrison‘s latest work, Lost Time, will be premiered by Jackie Stevens, Lauren McAllister, and Ellen Graham on our upcoming Soundbox concert Music for Three. Ellen shared some of the inspiration behind her work in a guest blog post, below. The premiere will take place at 7 PM on April 28 at the 21c Museum Hotel Cincinnati (Ballroom).

The poet Norman Finkelstein once told me that he is a Romantic modernist. I believe this holds true for me as well, which may explain why I find his poetry so inspiring. When I read his work, I feel transported onto another plane or into another world. And in this other world I find the inspiration for my music. The rhythm of his poems, their haunting imagery, and their sense of mystery and magic spark my imagination; and musical ideas flow forth from me in response.

Lost Time sets segments from Finkelstein’s poem Track, a spellbinding work of great depth, wisdom, and imagination that explores the darkness surrounding us. I am fascinated by its evocative images and musical sensibility and have tried to reflect the magical, mysterious and melancholy quality of his poem in my work. The piece opens with:

“Among the paper trees
a figure glides and stops
Shimmers in a light
that is a sort of music
Turns toward
or away from home.”

Need I say more?  The mystery is captivating.

– Ellen Ruth Harrison, March 2019.

Music for Three

Join CSB for our next event on April 28: Music for Three.

Vocalists Ellen Graham, Jackie Stevens, and Lauren McAllister will give the premiere of five duos and trios by composers with ties to Cincinnati: Ellen Ruth Harrison, Stephen Variames, Laura Harrison, Julia Seeholzer, and Rachel C. Walker.