Prize score evokes solitude of life's journey

Sheng Meng, a graduate of the Shanghai Conservatory of Music, won first prize at the 8th Rivers Awards Composition Competition.

Sheng Meng, a graduate of the Shanghai Conservatory of Music, won first prize at the 8th Rivers Awards Composition Competition for a score combining string quartet, piano and three Chinese traditional instruments.

“I tried to combine Chinese and Western aesthetics to create a dreamlike world,” the young composer said.

The competition, held at the conservatory, offers a stage for original musical works. Judges included musical dignitaries from around the world.

This year’s event had a new twist. Composers had to use both Chinese and Western musical instruments in their scores. They were required to use between three and nine of the following: two violins, one viola, one cello, one double bass, piano and Chinese traditional instruments — the bamboo flute, the pipa and the erhu. Each work had to incorporate at least one of the Chinese traditional instruments. 

“The competition used to feature only Western instruments,” said Zhou Xianglin, dean of composition at the conservatory. “We added Chinese instruments this year to promote more exchange between Chinese and Western music.”

The competition was open to participants under the age of 45, regardless of their nationality, location or profession.

Zhou was among the 10 judges in the jury for the preliminary round, which involved 113 composition entries — the most in Rivers Awards history. Twenty-two of the composers were from overseas.

“Most of the participants are young composers, and their works are extremely innovative and explorative,” said Zhou. “These are qualities we want to encourage through the event. The harmony of Chinese and Western musical instruments echoes the name of the Rivers Awards — that is, rivers from all directions converging into the sea.”

Ten works made it to the finals, including compositions from China’s mainland, Austrian and South Korean composers. The works were performed in concert at the conservatory.

The final round jury was comprised of musical experts from China and abroad. They included Belgian Peter Swinnen, president of the International Society for Contemporary Music; France’s Stephane Roth, director of the Strasbourg Music Festival; Russian Vladimir Tarnopolski, director of the Moscow State Tchaikovsky Conservatory’s Contemporary Music Center; and Xu Mengdong, vice chairman of the Shanghai Musician Association.

Sheng, 26, won the top prize with a composition entitled “The Solitary’s Dream.” 

According to Sheng, the seven-minute piece is a metaphor for the loneliness in the journey of life and the great artistic achievements made by those in solitude.

“The inspiration came from my personal experience,” he said. “I was in Germany for an exchange program as a student in 2017, and I suffered loneliness there. The challenge in composition, of course, is to find harmony between Chinese and Western instruments. As you know, Chinese instruments have a very strong personality.”

He added: “In my work, I try to present the feeling of Chinese and Western instruments that confront and have dialogue with each other. At the same time, they are intertwined to become one.”

The Anhui Province native learned violin and piano from his father as a child. He pursued a master’s degree in music composition at the Shanghai Conservatory of Music under the guidance of professor Chen Musheng. 

Sheng, who has been taking part in domestic and international composition competitions, is planning to go overseas for further study next year.

The jury’s comments said Sheng’s work stood out in its completeness, which flowed like a Chinese scroll painting. They also cited innovative details, like scoring that required thumping the bamboo flute and strumming piano strings.

Prize score evokes solitude of life's journey
Ti Gong

“Pendulum Trigonometry” for erhu, violin, cello, pipa and piano

Two composers shared second prize: Austrian Kevin Lang for a work entitled “Pendulum Trigonometry” and Wang Ruiqi from China’s Central Conservatory of Music for a work entitled “LvYao.”

The third prize had three winners: “Lyrical Nocturne” by Eunho Ghang, a teacher at the Fryderyk Chopin University of Music in Warsaw; “Marching in a Chilly Night” by Cui Zhehe from the Shenyang Conservatory of Music; and “Jian and Moon” by Xu Yifan, a doctoral student at the Shanghai Conservatory of Music.

The Strasbourg Music Festival’s Roth applauded the structure of this year’s competition.

“Ancient and traditional instruments are being displayed in a very modern way,” he said. “We have lots of such experimental works, too, back in Europe, combining ancient and modern Western instruments.”

Roth said there will be further collaboration between the Rivers Awards and the Strasbourg Music Festival, providing award-winning original works with a stage overseas.

The Shanghai Conservatory of Music will also cooperate with the International Society for Contemporary Music in organizing the 2021 International Contemporary Music Concert, to be held in Shanghai. The international organization, created in Salzburg, Austria, in 1922, promotes modern classical music.

Prize score evokes solitude of life's journey
Ti Gong

“Lyrical Nocturne” for flute, piano, two violins, viola, cello and double bass

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