Part cartoon character, part virtuoso, musical whiz kid Wang Jie has been nudging serious music and its concert audiences into spectacular frontiers over the past few seasons. Her “FROM NEW YORK, WITH LOVE” transformed a classic percussionist into a dervish-like rock star. Her chamber opera “FLOWN” dramatized the end of a rocky love affair by having the two pianists attack each other and their shared instrument. Despite having the worst title in the history of music, “OBOE CONCERTO FOR THE GENUINE HEART OF SADNESS” channeled the power of the League of Composers Orchestra into an orgiastic whirlwind. An unexpected collaboration with comedy writer Paul Simms inspired a song cycle about dying funny that coaxed belly laughs from an otherwise sedate Opera America audience. Not one to let herself off the hook at her Carnegie Hall debut, she shape-shifted into a monkey god while leading performances of her concert opera “FROM THE OTHER SKY”. There’s a touch of glorious madness to Jie’s work, but her colleagues and mentors at the Curtis Institute of Music, the Manhattan School of Music and the NYU PhD program have been long aware of the skill, theatricality and method behind it.
Born across the globe in a metropolis dubbed the Eastern Paris, Jie was a January baby associated with the departing zodiac Sheep, high hope for the arriving Spring and the first year of the Single Child Policy. Wang Jie is not the easiest name to sing, and her face? Depending on the time of day, it’s Buddha sipping a fine whisky or your Chinese Takeout cashier girl next door. However, once you’ve sat in the audience when one of her composition is performed, you’ll be tempted to memorize the music of her name. Once her face animates a bubbly conversation, you’ll at least sneak a second look to see what she may do next.
After a successful escape from a military-run kindergarten, Jie’s parents decided that a dose of discipline was necessary to manage the 4-year-old’s oversized frontal lobe. They plopped their shrimpy child in front of renowned composer/pianist Yang Liqin. Jie was instantly drawn to this monstrous instrument. Eighteen months later, she climbed onto the piano bench and performed both volumes of J.S. Bach’s Inventions at her kindergarten graduation. “We sure tamed this kid, didn’t we?” approved by the Air Force General after the recital. Jie couldn’t read or write Chinese yet: music was her first language and first love.
As it happens, post-Cultural Revolution pre-schoolers who could perform Bach were a penny a bucket. Jie’s small hands soon put her at a disadvantage: unable to stretch an octave on the piano, she ran out of repertoire to play and was stuck revisiting music she’d already mastered. Then came the news that she was ineligible to audition as a pianist at the Shanghai Conservatory of Music. Thinking ahead, mom and dad added an advanced academic curriculum to their imp’s 4-hours-a-day piano practice. This otherwise detrimental blow served to prepare Jie for the kind of intellectual fast track and in-depth music thinking that has enabled her to let pencils and manuscript papers slowly overtake the piano.
After six years of hard study, the new teen crashed again at an audition for the Shanghai Conservatory: the school didn’t know quite what to do with this “not so orthodox” composer. Violent parental discussions about who was to blame for this weird kid got Jie shipped to a highly esteemed boarding school/prison for youngsters showing high promise in science. En route to incarceration, Jie sneaked three cassette tapes into her suitcase: Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony, Tchaikovsky’s “Pathétique” Symphony, and Rimsky-Korsakov’s Scheherazade. Considering Jie’s beginner’s luck of previous military escapes, the rest of the story pretty much tells itself. When you catch her saying “music is the difference between life and death”, believe her!
The delinquent science student was repeatedly caught skipping College Physics courses for a few hours with the piano or hiding a Mozart biography inside an Advanced Calculus book jacket. Even so, Jie flabbergasted her teachers by winning a national science fair award with her “irrigation system for the arid lands of China”. A major university offered her early admission at its Physics department. “When it comes to a choice between life and death, the composer must always choose life!” said the reckless high school senior in front of the university officials.
Having burned her bridges at the boarding school and the university, Jie reached a point of no return as she launched an underground solo operation to attempt a third audition for the Shanghai Conservatory. Boy, was she in for a surprise! Now that you know all the mischief that seasoned Jie for a tour of America’s top music schools, you might begin to understand where her mantra “Engage Explore Play” comes from.
Seventeen years and several world-class mentors later, it turns out that Jie’s irrigation system project is still with her. A battery of insistent muses regularly flood her with musical ideas and command that she channel them into symphonies, operas, or any form of composition to enrich mankind’s aesthetic life. The messages from beyond can be daunting, but Jie figures: “If you find yourself elated by my music, the credit goes to the muses. If you hate it, well, it’s only 15 minutes long.”
At the forefront of the younger generation American composers, WANG JIE has emerged as one of the most evocative musical voices. Ranging from elegant to campy, her works are powerfully engaging, richly orchestrated and rhythmically vibrant. One day she spins a few notes into large music forms, the next she calls Zodiac animals to the opera stage – a rare trait in today’s composers.
Born in Shanghai shortly after the Culture Revolution, Ms. Wang was raised in an era of breathtaking economic and cultural expansion. She was a known piano prodigy by the age of five. A scholarship from Manhattan School of Music brought her to the US where she began her composition studies under the tutelage of Nils Vigeland and later with Richard Danielpour at the Curtis Institute of Music.
While a student, her tragic opera NANNAN was showcased by New York City Opera’s annual VOX festival. This led to the production of her chamber opera FLOWN, a meditation on lovers who must part, by Music-Theatre Group. The Emily Dickenson inspired song cycle I DIED FOR BEAUTY was featured at the opening ceremony of Beijing Modern Music Festival. Her piano trio SHADOW dramatizes the inner life of an autistic child. It was featured by the New Juilliard Ensemble at the Museum of Modern Art and was subsequently presented by Continuum at Merkin Hall’s “China in America”.
Not yet 30 years old, Ms Wang won the coveted Underwood Commission, and her concert opera FROM THE OTHER SKY was the centerpiece of the American Composers Orchestra’s season opening concert at Carnegie Hall. During that same year, the Minnesota Orchestra, led by Osmo Vanska, performed her SYMPHONY NO.1 as part of “Future Classics” series. Most recently, SYMPHONY NO.2, commissioned and premiered by Detroit Symphony Orchestra under the baton of Leonard Slatkin was streamed live to global audiences. OBOE CONCERTO, co-commissioned by The Koussevitzky Foundation in the Library of Congress and The League of Composers Orchestra, premiered at NYC’s Miller Theater with NY Philharmonic’s principle oboist Liang Wang as the Soloist.
From the beginning of her career, Jie has won enthusiastic critical response. The New York Times described FROM THE OTHER SKY as “clear, lucid and evocative”, and OBOE CONCERTO as “ interesting things to say and intriguing ways to say them”. Classicalsource.com thought her concert opera to be “far more fun than one is supposed to have at a concert of ‘serious’ music”. Minnesota’s Pioneer Press claimed that SYMPHONY NO.1 is “self-assured” and “fascinating.” Reviewers have cited her music as “introspective” (The New York Times) and “scrupulously crafted composition that embraces both Chinese and Western modern classical expression” (Pittsburgh Times Review).
In addition to her successes in concert halls, Ms Wang was the recipient of several Toulmin Foundation grants and a McKnight fellowship. She was named a Schumann fellow at the Aspen Music Festival where she studied with Christopher Rouse and Marc-Andre Dalbavie in the Master Class program, and a McCracken Fellow at the NYU Graduate School of Arts and Sciences. Other honors include multiple ASCAP awards, citations from BMI, Opera America, a Charles Ives Scholarship from the American Academy of Arts and Letters, most recently a Koussevitzky Prize from the Library of Congress, and the Elaine Lebonbom Prize from Detroit Symphony Orchestra.
Ms. Wang is a publishing member of ASCAP. She lives on Upper West Side with Pilot, a now exceedingly rare Sealyham terrier. Aside from composing, she is an avid hiker, rock climber, and a ringer softball player all over Manhattan. She bats left and throws right.
- The New Criterion (Dec. 2010)
“An evening of the American Composers Orchestra did what such evenings do: present music for orchestra by American composers. The concert took place in Zankel Hall, which is in Carnegie’s basement, so to speak, and it offered three relatively recent pieces and two brand-new ones. One of the brand-new ones is not quite for orchestra. It’s called From the Other Sky, by a Chinese-American composer named Wang Jie, born in 1980. How to describe her piece? Here is how she describes it: “a multimedia concert opera / song cycle,” in “three scenes/movements.” There is a story, and it concerns the animals of the Chinese zodiac, and a missing, musical thirteenth one. The main message of the story, I believe, is that music is a balm to man.
The work is by turns whimsical, campy, tragic, haunting. At times it seems a novelty, almost a “private” piece, meant for friends at a party, not for the public. Shostakovich used to write this kind of piece. In fact, I was thinking that he would appreciate From the Other Sky, as I sat in Zankel Hall. But then, a seriousness of purpose is conveyed. The work has an element of agitprop. For example, characters hold up signs, one of which reads “Bailout Plan.” From the Other Sky strikes me as an exceptionally personal piece, something with a deep meaning to the composer—a meaning beyond what the audience can grasp, at least on a first hearing and viewing. The music is not memorable, I would say, but it fits each thought and scene. Incidentally, the composer herself participated in this premiere performance: She played three different keyboards and underwent several costume changes.
In the middle of the concert, an official with the American Composers Orchestra took the stage, to give a little speech. He thanked and flattered the audience. “All credit to you for coming,” he said, and, “Blessings on you for seeking out the unfamiliar.” Attendance was a virtue, you see: not merely a choice, but a virtue. The official congratulated the audience as an adult might congratulate a child on liking vegetables. Also, we learned that the orchestra has a program called “Playing It UNsafe,” which involves “five cutting-edge composers.” The conceits of the new-music crowd seem to know no bounds. May I suggest a way of playing it unsafe? Stop kissing the backsides of the new-music audience, and the “cutting-edge” composers, and let music rise or fall on its own merits. One well-composed waltz or galop is worth more than yet another uninspired exercise in the “cutting edge.”
For her piece, Wang Jie wrote one of the most charming program notes I have ever read. She spoke of “insistent muses who command me to write down their music.” She continued, “. . . if you find yourself elated by tonight’s performance, the credit goes to them. If you hate it, well, it’s only 15 minutes long.” Before her piece was performed, a video was shown, in which she was interviewed. And, during this interview, one of the most remarkable and moving things I have ever experienced in a concert hall—or in any public forum—took place.
Wang said that her father was a musician who survived the Cultural Revolution. At least, I believe I heard her correctly. At eleven, she herself was sent to a music school, far from their home in China—again, if I heard correctly. She was the youngest girl in the dormitory, and she was alone and miserable. “Nobody liked me,” she said. She had as her companions two cassettes, which she listened to over and over. They contained three pieces of music: Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony, Tchaikovsky’s “Pathétique” Symphony, and Rimsky-Korsakov’s Scheherazade. When she named these pieces, the audience—the much-flattered new-music audience—laughed. Or at least chortled. It was a chortling that said, “What sugary, silly, hackneyed pieces, poor girl.” Then, on the video, Wang said, “It kept me alive.” Listening to this music was what “kept me alive.” The hall shut up, right quick.
And I will add a footnote: Several years ago, I did a public interview of Valery Gergiev, and I asked him what first hooked him on music. He said it was a recording of Scheherazade. Why wouldn’t it?”
- The New York Concert Review Inc. (May 22nd, 2011)
“… Continuum concluded its first half with “A Longing for Spring, A Multi-language Song Cycle” (2011) by Shanghai-born Wang Jie (b. 1980). Set to a Tang Dynasty poem by Tu Fu (712-770 AD) the work’s evocations of nature, war, torment, and tears were enhanced by super-titles and calligraphy projected onto a screen. There were so many ways to appreciate this composition, through sight, sound, and meaning, that interest never lapsed. One could not possibly grasp it all in a single hearing, but Ms. Wang’s multi-faceted work will undoubtedly earn future performances. She is certainly an artist to watch.”
– Rorianne Schrade
- The New York Times (October 18, 2010)
“The evening’s most vibrant, polished playing came in “From the Other Sky,” a 15-minute chamber opera by Wang Jie, a young Chinese composer based in New York and a winner of the orchestra’s Underwood Commission. The work, an invented fable about how the Lark was ejected from the Chinese zodiac, set to clear, lucid and evocative music, was sung in English and staged with whimsical headdresses, choreography and PowerPoint animations.
Portraying the Lark, the soprano Emily Hindrichs dispatched exuberant, high-flown lines with a winning ease. Krysty Swann, a mezzo-soprano, was an imperious Rat and a doleful peddler. Hugh Sinclair, the director, gave the Rooster’s proclamations an officious tone. Ms. Wang, cavorting in costume, played keyboards with the ensemble and prefaced the cheerful epilogue with a giddy cadenza on digitally sampled harpsichord. .”
– Steve Smith
- The Pioneer Press (Oct. 19th 2010)
“Will any of the works be “future classics,” as the Minnesota Orchestra has annually dubbed this concert? Well, each of the composers showed a lot of promise, but the women among the seven — Wang Jie and Polina Nazaykinskaya — seemed the most self-assured about the sound world they wished to create. Wang Jie‘s First Symphony traveled a fascinating arc over its 14 minutes, with a simple interval of two notes providing the foundation for a work that grows from innocent inquiry to roiling tension to a deep sense of loss.”
– Rob Hubbard
- The SunBreak (June 26, 2014)
“…Wang Jie’s A Silence Older Than Love: A Song Cycle of Intimate Desire, took the erotic implications, setting poems by Emily Dickinson and June Sylvester Saraceno in music which was by turns tender, full of longing, climactic, languorous, fierce or fluttery. Soft slides up and down the strings sometimes using only harmonics tied the different aspects together while the voice soared over. At fleeting moments one could perhaps hear hints of Puccini or Ravel. A strong piece which grabbed the attention…”
- Classicalsource.com (Oct. 16th 2010)
“Wang Jie’s From the Other Sky is far more fun than one is supposed to have at a concert of ‘serious’ music. This charming multimedia-comic-opera-meets-song-cycle in four scenes was presented in a semi-staged version with computer-controlled background projections. The completely original story by the composer is based on characters from the Chinese zodiac – but not all of them on this occasion because, as we learn in the first scene, some of them are out for pedicures or Pilates – and how the thirteenth Zodiac goddess, a lark, loses her place in the heavenly firmament and finds favor on earth. Emily Hendricks has a light voice, but with plenty of power where it counts, and was completely winning in the role of the bird. Krysty Swann was properly imperious as the celestial Rat, and used her warm mezzo to strong effect in the second scene as a cripple in a plague-infested world. Wang Jie (who was also costumed and a part of the dramatic action) is a solid pianist – and quite the character. The music, written in a completely approachable style, perfectly suits the story’s fairytale-with-a-modern-twist mood. I can’t wait to hear more of Wang Jie’s music”
– Gene Guadette
- The Detroit Free Press (March 29th, 2014)
The Chinese-born Jie’s Symphony No. 2 carries the subtitle “To and from Dakini” — Dakini being a Tibetan Buddhist female spirit of sorts. Another single-movement work lasting about 15 minutes, the piece opens quietly and furtively, rising and falling strings coalescing into stop-and-go phrases that spread through the ensemble and gradually coalesce into bigger ideas. A perfumed solo violin — the Dakini? — emerges from an impressionist atmosphere.
Faster rhythmic stutters later recall Stravinsky, and there’s something of Ravel’s coloration and Gyorgy Ligeti’s tactile textures in the score. Abstract passages marry to more concrete melodies and lush harmony, and at one point, the orchestra almost sounds as if it’s laughing. I like the patience with which Jie develops her materials, and she was aided by Slatkin, who shaped the music to keep a sense of forward motion in the foreground. Concertmaster Yoonshin Song also deserves a nod for her exquisite solos.
– – Mark Stryker
- The New York Times (July 10, 2007)
“Wang Jie, a 27-year-old composer from China who now lives in the United States, contributed the curtain raiser for the opening concert on Sunday evening. Her “Shadow” (2006) describes a 6-year-old boy at play, using pointillistic bursts of piano and string timbres to evoke his cavorting around a playground, with an occasional introspective respite. Ms. Wang provided a detailed scenario in her program notes, and the music follows the cues closely. It would be a perfect soundtrack for an animated short feature.”
– Allan Kozinn
- The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette (July 09, 2007)
“Despite a corny title, “Joy of Sextet” by Wang Jie also was compelling. Emphasized by new percussionist David Skidmore, delicate chords unfurled with florid decoration, inexplicably lending the work elements of both stasis and movement. The group functioned almost like an enhanced accordion, surging and pulling back again and again. Perhaps the title is not so corny, after all.”
– Andrew Druckenbrod
- The Pittsburgh Tribune (July 10, 2007)
“Scrupulously crafted composition that embraces both Chinese and Western modern classical expression.”
– Mark Kanny
- The Duowei Times (www.chinesenewsnet.com Front Page of April 20th 2007)
Front Page Article: Opera NANNAN, re-examines the value of Chinese Women
– Hubert Lu