At 83, composer still full of life, color

Shanghai is never old, says Chen Gang ahead of a special concert showcasing his works. He hopes his spirit and music, too, will always stay young.
Ti Gong

The many faces of the 83-year-old composer Chen Gang, the man behind the internationally acclaimed concerto “Butterfly Lovers”

Composer Chen Gang, perhaps most famous with Western audiences for his sublime violin concerto “Butterfly Lovers,” will give a special concert of his works on May 6 for his friends only at the Shanghai Symphony Hall.

He’s pleased with the program brochure designed by himself. Its cover is orange, and characters on the right spell out “Years of Youth.”

“Most of young people will take orange as the signature color of Hermes,” says the 83-year-old Chinese composer. “But it is also my color — fashion, vigor and brightness. I will wear it at my concert. Don’t be surprised. I am still fashionable!”

In November 2017, after Chen received the Lifetime Achievement Award of the Chinese Golden Bell for Music, he decided to give the concert — both to thank his friends and to signal that he’s not ready to give up his career.

“My friends said I have to show something after receiving such a prestigious award,” says Chen. “What kind of expression could be better from a musician than music? So, let’s party with music!”

About 10 pieces selected from different stages of Chen’s long and colorful career will be presented, including the violin concerto “Wang Zhaojun,” the oboe concerto “Nangma” and the premiere of a crossover work entitled “From the Sky Falls an Angel Sister Lin,” a trio of piano, violin and Yueju Opera vocal.

Chen himself will play the piano for two pieces in the concert.

Born to a musical family in Shanghai, Chen initially learned piano and composition from his father Chen Gexin, a composer of popular songs such as “Rose, Rose I Love You” and “Nightlife in Shanghai.”

Chen entered the Shanghai Conservatory of Music in 1955, where he studied with top Chinese and Western musicians. Four years later, he and another student, He Zhanhao, composed “Butterfly Lovers.” The piece has come to be recognized as one of the greatest fusions of Chinese and Western music, containing elements from Yueju Opera and Western symphony.

Chen says its success embodies the “open, tolerant and creative” character of Shanghai culture. He was a laokele, a term applied to Shanghai elderly men who adopted Western ways as early as the 1930s and 1940s.

“Chinese traditional melodies are beautiful, yet limited in resonating with audiences internationally,” he says. “I have always been exploring ways to use the Western-style symphony to tell our stories and emotions. It is not an easy job, but it’s fun and inspiring — always.”

Ti Gong

Orange on the cover of the program brochure Chen designed for his upcoming concert symbolizes his "fashion, vigor and brightness."

Forever exploring, Chen wrote the first Chinese oboe concerto and the first Chinese harp concerto. “Butterfly Lovers” won’t be played for the May 6 concert. Chen says he is saving that for its 60th anniversary next year. Instead, there will be a section themed “Red Violin” to showcase the brightest colors he created in the darkest days of his life.

Violins were all the rage in Shanghai in the 1960s and 1970s, when the Shanghai violin factory was turning out more than 100,000 of the instruments every year.

With almost all classical music banned during the “cultural revolution” (1966-76), those who wanted to play the violin could sometimes be heard playing etudes on their balconies.

From 1973 to 1976 he composed nine pieces as “Red Violin” works, including “The Golden Steel-Smelting Furnace,” “The Morning of Mount Miao” and “The Sun Shines on Taxkorgan.”

Ye Guohui, dean of composition at the Shanghai Conservatory of Music, says the pieces in Chen’s “Red Violin” series were considered must-play pieces back when he was working in an army art troupe.

Shanghai writer Cheng Naishan (1946-2013), also known as Nancy Cheng, once recalled the first time she heard “The Red Sun Shines on the Steel-Smelting Furnace” on the radio.

In the music, she said she envisioned the blind retired army officer in the movie “Scent of a Woman” because the composer was also making great moves within a very limited space.

“Who says that you have to actually witness before creating?” Chen says. “I believe that a composer is expected to create sunshine in the days of darkness, and paint golden colors in the days of gray. It is our job to comfort people even in difficult times. I am proud that I did that, and I am going to keep doing that.”

Now in his 80s, Chen has chosen to put more fun and less “killing himself” into his compositions. His recent works include a series of trios based on traditional Chinese operas.

It all started with a request from Kunqu Opera artist Shen Yili for a crossover work for Kunqu and violin. But after Chen completed the piece “Jing Meng,” or “Sweet Dream,” based on the opera “Peony Pavilion,” he was moved to dig deeper into the traditional repertory.

He has just completed two other trios based on Yueju Opera and Pingtan Opera and is planning another based on Huaiju Opera.

Ti Gong

Chen Gang at the piano

“I am a fan of traditional Chinese operas,” Chen says. “A good composer has to know a bit of everything. He or she needs to have curiosity and passion for life and for the world, so that they can always be inspired.”

Apart from music records, Chen’s shelves hold a wealth of books on subjects as diverse as philosophy, literature, home decor and medicine.

When music education ceased during the “cultural revolution,” Chen took up acupuncture. He credits his amateur efforts with helping a number of his colleagues, including the famous Chinese soprano Zhou Xiaoyan (1917-2016), who was suffering pain in the lower back.

“I am not boasting,” he says, hardly concealing a certain touch of pride. “I kept a notebook about all the patients I cured, with their signatures.”

Chen worries that too many young musicians today function like machines. Some students may reach a high standard of playing but have no idea about musical creativity, he says.

“It surprises me when students asks me what they should compose,” says Chen. “Composition is about saying what you feel inside through music. If you are not feeling, there is nothing I can do to help. The best advice I can give is to go out and get some real life experience.”

Together with friends with the same interest, Chen started the Kele Men Salon in 2012, where artists share their stories, feelings and expectations about Shanghai culture with the public through radio, TV, online platforms and books.

Membership covers a wide range of artists. They include Shanghai actress Qin Yi, now in her 90s; Taiwan writer Pai Hsien-yung, now in his 80s; Shanghai-born ballet dancer Tan Yuanyuan, in her 40s; and local violinist Huang Mengla, in his 30s.

“Pai Hsien-yung once said, ‘Shanghai is never old’,” Chen says. “I hope that my spirit and my music will always be young. Just like the city.”

Ti Gong

Chen received the Lifetime Achievement Award of the Chinese Golden Bell for Music last year.

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