Juilliard’s Focus! Festival brings Chinese music to New Yorker’s ears

China 24

Juilliard's Focus! Festival brings Chinese music to New Yorker's ears

Every January, the Juilliard School in New York stages six free concerts as part of an event called the “Focus! Festival.” Each year emphasizes one theme, and this year, the prestigious institution has chosen contemporary China as its inspiration.

CGTN’s Karina Huber reports. 

Ye Xiaogang, one of China’s most well-known composers of contemporary classical music, composed a piece called “Lamura Cuo.”

He’s just one of 33 composers contributing to Juilliard’s Focus! Festival, featuring Chinese artists living predominantly in China.

Some of the pieces are well known. Others are getting their debut.

Seven composers, all born after 1980, were commissioned to write new pieces for the festival. Though they rely on Chinese inspiration, most compositions feature western instruments, because Juilliard students are performing the pieces. Most don’t know how to play traditional Chinese instruments.

Soprano Vivian Yau is from Hong Kong, and is one of many Chinese students at Juilliard.

“We grew up listening to traditional Chinese music, but we’re here receiving training in western music,” she said. “We learn how to play western instruments, western techniques, and it’s very special to combine the two when we have the chance, and this is kind of what we’re doing with the festival.”

Highlighting Chinese compositions with western instruments, the festival begs the audience to ponder what makes Chinese music Chinese, in an era when the world is more interconnected than ever. Some composers use references to nature, and others compose with pentatonic scales (five notes per octave).

Violinist Julia Glenn speaks fluent Mandarin, and has been researching Chinese contemporary music. She says the nuances are often subtle.

“Something can feel Chinese in many different ways,” she explained. “With 56 different ethnic minorities and thousands upon thousands of years of history, that encompasses a lot of different possibilities.”

Director Joel Sachs is less concerned about cultural markers, and is instead focused on one thing.

“What we want to find is composers who have a strong individual personality, who write music that is music that no one else would have composed. If it happens to sound Chinese, that’s fine. And if it happens to sound Chinese and it’s made by an Argentinian, that’s fine too. As long as it’s good.”