When I was three, my mother bought me a toy piano. I was obsessed with it and played it all the time, so she decided to buy me a real one. In the early 80s in China a piano was very expensive to afford (it almost doubled my family’s yearly expenses), but she was a strong and determined person. She bought a piano and arranged to have it shipped to my hometown, JiuJiang, over 1,000 kilometers away from Guangzhou. As I grew up, she accompanied me to piano competitions, music school auditions, and performances–no matter where, she was always there to support me.
During the 20 months of working on Song of the Flaming Phoenix, my mother’s health declined. The compositional process was slow and difficult; I would write a few measures, then make phone calls with doctors and family in China for hours. No matter how sick she was, she would always smile when I told her about my work. On the night I was writing the final bars of the piece, my father called to tell me that my mother had passed away. It felt as if she held her last breath, waiting for me to finish this piece, as if she knew that I would be too sad to continue.
The idea of this work came from Esa-Pekka Salonen’s initial proposal to pair a piece of mine with Scriabin’s Prometheus. Song of the Flaming Phoenix was composed using inspiration of the octatonic sets and the color schemes of Prometheus. Reflecting another great loss in my life, the very last conversation I had with my mentor Steven Stucky before he passed was about the tetrachords in Lutosławski’s music in relation to the octatonic set.
The Fenghuang, known as the Phoenix, was considered the king of all birds in Chinese mythology.
“Of the five elements, its green head represented wood, its white neck metal, its red back fire, its black chest water, and its yellow feet earth. Its feathers were patterned to represent written characters: on its head a “德“ for "virtue"; on each of its wings a “义“ for "righteousness"; on its back a “礼“ for "courtesy"; on its chest a “仁” for "benevolence"; and on its belly a “信” for “trust”. When the four virtues of benevolence, righteousness, courtesy, and trust were displayed on its body–and with its every auspicious appearance–the world was at peace.” (Excerpt taken from Fantastic creatures of the Mountains and Seas text by Jiankun Sun, translated by Howard Goldblatt).
In the latter half of Song of the Flaming Phoenix, I translated the birdsongs heard in my backyard in South Carolina into seven other mythical birds: Yu (Carolina Chickadee), Changfu (Carolina Wren), Manman (Yellow-Rumped Warbler), Luan (Tufted Titmouse), Lingyao (Northern Cardinal & Summer Tanager), Qiyu (Red-breasted Nuthatch & Northern Mockingbird), and Min (Blue-gray Gnatcatcher). I imagine that the Fenghuang lead her feathered friends from heaven to save humanity from the ongoing disasters.
The solo instrument Sheng is the world’s oldest free-reed mouth organ, with a history of more than 3,000 years. It is a representation of 凤凰 (fenghuang) Phoenix, 和 (he) Harmony, and 笙 (sheng) - 生 life. I also noticed that the flag of the city of San Francisco depicts a rising phoenix, symbolic of the city’s recovery from the 1906 earthquake and subsequent fires.
The piece is dedicated to Wu Wei (Sheng virtuoso), Maestro Salonen, and the San Francisco Symphony, in the memory of my mother (1940-2022).
ca. 30 minutes
Solo Sheng (mouth organ); 4 Flutes (3rd & 4th dlb Piccolo; 2nd dlb alto Flute);
4 Oboes (4th dlb English Horn); 4 Clarinets (3rd & 4th dlb Bass Clarinet);
4 Bassoons (4th Contrabassoon); 4 Horns; 4 Trumpets; 4 Trombones (4th Bass Trombone)
1 Tuba; 1 Timpani; 4 Percussions; 1 Harp; 1 Piano/Celesta; Strings 14,12,10,8,6
March 3, 4, 5, 2022
by Wu Wei (Sheng virtuoso), and the San Francisco Symphony Orchestra
under the baton of maestro Esa-Pekka Salonen
San Francisco Symphony Orchestra and League of American Orchestras
with funds provided by the Virginia B. Toulmin Foundation
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Images of mythical birds from "Fantastic Creatures of the Mountains and Seas: a Chinese Classic"
by Jiankun Sun
Color schemes (follow Scriabin's Prometheus)