Wang Jie: “It’s time that I come to Ukraine to show support”

Wang Jie. Photo by Kevin Hsu

These summer days in Ukraine are filled with sounds of air raid sirens informing about continuous threats because of the endless Russian-Ukrainian war. However, famous American composer of Chinese origin, Wang Jie, came to the western part of Ukraine, Lviv, to hear the local premieres of her two pieces by the Lviv National Philharmonic Orchestra. 

Her music is rarely versatile and bright, well-known to audiences around the globe, now gets to the Ukrainian listeners*. Her Symphony No. 1 became the most-broadcast work on the most-listened-to classical music show in the USA for the past three years. We asked Jie about  her impressions of being here and the very essence of the metaphor sense in works. 

*Link to the live stream below.

How does it feel like to be here in Lviv as our country is at war?

Wang Jie: Mostly, while I was in New York, of course, I debated about my safety coming here, but it felt important to be here in person as an American artist. I feel it’s time that I come here to show support. I have met some Lviv musicians, I have a great working dynamic with Mr. Kuсhar. So he and I have had many conversations about this concert program. My personal safety and concerns were just trivial compared to the feeling that I needed to be here in person. I can’t really explain it, but I had to do it. I was very compelled to overcome all the difficulties of the travel and the logistics to be here.

It’s great that this time Lviv National Philharmonic Orchestra has this opportunity to work together with you. How did the idea of this concert come up? 

Wang Jie: I met Mr. Kuchar during a dinner celebration after the Lviv National Philharmonic  Symphony Orchestra played a wonderful concert in the Bronx, New York. During the dinner, we talked about new music and performing living composers’ music and the challenges of presenting works by living composers across the world, not just in Ukraine or the United States. I happened to have my iPad with me that day. After I showed him PDFs of two of my compositions,, he just got quiet and started reading my music during dinner while over a bowl of pasta! That’s kind of how we got to know each other, really just sitting across the table from each other and sharing many thoughts about the program they played in Carnegie Hall. More than reading, I listened to Mr. Kuchar sharing his experiences as a conductor of a Ukrainian orchestra, and I was really touched, it was especially inspiring for me to hear that this orchestra still has not missed the beat and is playing through all the challenges of being in a country of war.

And these two pieces we will hear on August, 20, are brand new. So you’ve just premiered them at the Colorado Music Festival, right? Could you share some details on how did it happen? 

Wang Jie: Both works premiered last year, about a month from each other. It was really interesting. It was actually two separate orchestras. So “The Winter That United Us” was commissioned by the League of American Orchestras, for the Buffalo Philharmonic Orchestra. And so the world premiere was by JoAnn Falletta and the Buffalo Philharmonic Orchestra. The funding comes from a foundation that supports women artists called Virginia B. Toulmin Foundation. So this is one of those pieces that was commissioned and then the pandemic happened and then it just kept get postponed. And in the meantime, I had the other commission from the Colorado Music Festival. That piece also got postponed during the pandemic. And the dates kept shifting between the two. 

So, one month I was working on “The Winter That United Us”. Next month I was working on “Flying on the Scaly Backs of Our Mountains”. And then the next month I was like, “oh no, they got postponed again, so let me go back to working on this thing”. So it got switched back and forth. I think of these two works as sister pieces, as siblings, as they’re fraternal  twins. They’re not identical twins, but they come out pretty much one after another, and they’ve been conceived in a similar state of mind,related in their spirit. So it’s wonderful to hear them back to back. Actually Lviv National Philharmonic Orchestra of Ukraine will be the first orchestra to present these sibling pieces back-to-back in one concert. 

Wang Jie. Photo by Kevin Hsu

A question about the idea of these pieces. Are you a rock climber? How did it happen that these are very metaphoric titles?

Wang Jie: Yes, I am. I literally climb rocks and cliffs. So I’ll just talk about “Flying on the Scaly Backs…” first. Colorado Music Festival is in Boulder, Colorado, and I have a lot of love for Colorado because of rock climbing. Boulder, Colorado is kind of the center of rock climbing, a sacred place. So I was there one year to climb the Eldorado Canyon on the right at the Boulder, Colorado, literally like 15 minutes from the concert hall. I mean, you wake up in Colorado music festival, their concert hall, you’re looking at one of the most famous rock climbing cliffs. I had to invoke my love for rock climbing in this piece. So I also know that rock climbing, just like music, has symbolic interaction with nature. It’s very somatic for me, my body has memories and knowledge of the place that somehow it translates into the number “5”… 

Long story short, I was on a climbing route and the ice sealed the route and we had to get very creative and find an alternative. So I had to make several consecutive moves in order to get out of danger. And I didn’t know how to do it, but my body figured it out. One, two, three, four, five, – five moves to safety. I did that during the rock climbing trip. And then the number of five just happens to be a very satisfying musical inspiration in my current state of mind. I’ve been really interested in the combination different ways of feeling the number five, whether it’s five beats or five in the meter or five in terms of its structural implications, just anything to do with five, my mind gets very excited to try to express this feeling of five in the music. 

One additional thing I’ll say about this pieceit’s a poetic expression of how I feel about mountains. In my imagination, I am always flying around the mountain because I want to see the mountain and feel the mountain from all of the angles, from above, from the side, from the foothill. That’s how eventually the title came along about flying next to the mountains. And the piece is a forever augmenting form so that the piece literally, I hope, elevates from the beginning to the end. It’s one big gesture. So I was hopeful that I could deliver that exhilarating feeling, the spirit of joy and celebration that the human spirit is most valuable when we can lift ourselves out of the ashes of atrocity. 

War is a really challenging and dark place. My hope is that through the joy of music-making that people hear these works of mine and they have something to live for and to strive for and to thrive for, not just food, shelter, and the basic things to live on, but something that can guide them spiritually.

 “The Winter That United Us”

Obviously, it’s a poetic meaning of whether spring is far behind, whether we can get out of the winter all together in one piece and it was important for me to show in musical feeling in this piece that it’s a definite yes: what follows winter is celebration of unity because the there are so many cultural references and elements in it. My hope was that I was able to integrate all of these elements that some of my composer heroes including Sibelius. Sibelius was very important for me. Vaughan Williams was very important for me. That’s just the two that I can think of.

I was so glad that this piece is on the program because when I think of an entire country of people who are suffering in this much uncertainty, I think about how music could, for one brief moment, just these 12 minutes, that everybody could have the certainty of being together in a meaningful way. 

I think that’s the power of music. That is the universal spirit that we share. And it doesn’t matter that I live in United States and I’m American artist. It ties our hearts together through this music.

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