Young composer 'revives' the story of the Communist Party of China

Zhang Qian
Gong Tianpeng’s original choral symphony “The Revival” will be premiered as the opening performance of the Shanghai International Arts Festival. 
Zhang Qian
Young composer 'revives' the story of the Communist Party of China
Ti Gong

Gong Tianpeng changed his career path from a pianist to a composer at the age of 18.

Gong Tianpeng, a 25-year-old Chinese composer, is excited upon hearing that his original choral symphony “The Revival” will be the opening performance of the 2017 Shanghai International Arts Festival.

With the theme of Shanghai being the birth place of the Communist Party of China (CPC), “The Revival” in five movements will be presented by the Shanghai Philharmonic Orchestra and Shanghai Opera House on October 20. 

Well-known Chinese conductor Tang Muhai, baritone Liao Changyong, tenor Han Peng and soprano Xu Lei will be the stars of the evening at Shanghai Grand Theater. 

“Supporting young talents has always been an important task of the arts festival. Gong is highly qualified and deserves a good platform,” says Wang Jun, president of the Center for Shanghai International Arts Festival. 

Wang says the festival committee has been closely following Gong for some time. Impressed by his recent achievements in music, they saw him as a natural choice.

“We are looking forward to seeing how the young musician will interpret the story that happened nearly 100 years ago,” says Wang.

Born into a musicians family in Nanjing, Jiangsu Province, Gong’s talent for music was spotted at a very early age. He was hailed as a “child prodigy” after he started signing melodies at the age of 1 and was capable of distinguishing the triad at 2. He followed it up by playing the piano at 5 years old and was recruited by the Juilliard School at the age of 9.

In 2005, after he performed as the finale at the 100th anniversary concert of the Julliard School right after violinist Itzak Perlman, soprano Renee Fleming and soundtrack master John Towner Williams, Gong’s career as a pianist took off and he signed a contract with ICM and did many tours afterward.

Yet, the 13-year-old Gong was not content with just interpreting others’ works.

“I have so much to express, and a piano is far from enough for me,” says Gong. Infatuated with Mahler and Wagner’s works at the time, Gong started to work on his own music secretly.

“Composition is like a drug to me. I knew I should not spend too much time on it, but I just could not control myself,” says Gong. 

Spending so much time composing definitely distracted him from practicing the piano. As a result, Gong “ruined” a concert at the age of 17. Though it was not a significant show, it stayed as a stain in his heart.

“Hearing the warm applauds, I felt like I cheated the audience,” recalls Gong. And that sense of guilty grew into a fear for stage. “It was like jumping the rope. Fearing to be tripped over, I jumped especially high each time. But surely I cannot keep jumping that way for long. That is the moment that I realized I may never become the pianist as expected. ”

Gong canceled a whole year of performances and told his parents that he wanted to be a composer rather than a pianist. It was a tough decision for the family as they had sacrificed everything to groom him as a pianist. But with the help of Joseph W. Polisi, president of the Julliard School, Gong was allowed to study composition with Andrew Thomas and Samuel Adler.

Right there, Gong discovered his touch. He was exposed to a wide range of art forms like painting, movie and literature as nutrition for composition. And as a student from China, he got especially interested in ancient Chinese poems, lyrics, traditional Chinese operas, ink-washing paintings and calligraphy, which he’s now still reading and learning for at least two hours a day.

“I felt like home. This is exactly where I belong,” says Gong. 

The young man created 14 works during his time at the school, including piano concerto “1899 Overture,” “Chamber Tone Poems I, II, III” and the first three of his symphonic works. He has been awarded the Morton Could Young Composer Award by American Society of Composers, Authors and Publishers for consecutive seven times.

Young composer 'revives' the story of the Communist Party of China
Ti Gong

Gong Tianpeng (second from right) acknowledges applauds with performers after the concert where he premieres his "Symphony No. 5" in 2015 in Shanghia.

Gong once asked Polisi why he approved his choice in the first place, Polisi told him that nobody could be sure about another man’s future; he was afraid that any of his opinionated judgment may stifle a real talent.

After graduation, Gong started a new phase as the composer-in-residence with the Shanghai Philharmonic Orchestra in 2014.

Apart from works based on his own interest like the viola concerto “The Catcher in the Rye” which was inspired by the namesake novel, and the “Symphony No. 6” featuring his own experience when studying in the United States, he is also the man behind quite a number of works such as the Chinese Dream-themed “Symphony No. 4,” the anti-Fascist-themed “Symphony No. 5” and the “2016 Spring Overture” for the opening of Shanghai Disneyland.

Although many young musicians are reluctant when it comes to “commissioned works,” it was not a problem with Gong.

“It is true that some people, especially the young, have strong opinions about ‘assigned work,’ I was never troubled by it,” says Gong. “Music is about melodies and there can be numerous possibilities in it. For me, there is no such thing as assigned work but only good music.”

As long as the theme interested him and was suitable for classical music, Gong would like to take the assignment.

“Actually, I was thrilled when commissioned to create something about the birth of the Communist Party of China. It granted me the opportunity to learn more about this special part of history and to express what I feel for my home country as a post-1990s generation,” Gong notes.

To learn the history, Gong spent more than a month visiting museums and memorial halls throughout China, such as the memorial hall of the 1911 Revolution in Guangzhou, Guangdong Province, the former residence of Lu Xun in Beijing and the Site of the First National Congress of the Communist Party of China in Shanghai.

“Surely there’s abundant information available online, but it feels different if you visit those places in person, ‘reading’ the great men in the history and getting inspired,” says Gong. “Despite living in different eras, I still feel connected with them through the veil of time.”

“The Revival” is a dialogue between a young man of today and young patriots in the early 20th century, says Gong. To help audiences travel back in time, he collected many “old Shanghai voices” in his work, such as the folk rhymes, hawkers’ cry and wharf chant that once prevailed in Shanghai, and carefully knitted them into his music. He also used the poem “The Youth” by Li Dazhao, one of the founding members of the Communist Party of China.

“The youth built this land;

The youth walks this earth.

The youth stands free,

Open as horizons and deep as selfhood.

I live for those I love.

I hold that oath to death.”

“I love this poem and feel my blood boiling whenever I read it,” says Gong. 

“Youth is not just about being young, but also embracing the passion and responsibility of the nation and country. I am not sure whether other young people may feel the same way, but I am willing to tell and pass on the messages that I got from the great youths 100 years ago. It is my obligation as an artist.”

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