Through music, Yale students have exposed a Carnegie Hall audience to a relatively unknown period of Chinese history.
On Saturday night, Feb. 26, the Yale Concert Band premiered “Ask the Sky and the Earth: A Cantata for the Sent-down Youth,” a work with lyrics written by Yale Chinese professor Wei Su. The cantata — a multipart composition featuring a chorus — was written to commemorate the political movements of Mao Zedong during the Cultural Revolution. Roughly 300 audience members, many of whom were of Chinese descent, attended the premiere.
In the 1960s and 1970s, urban teenagers, especially those with well-educated parents, were required to leave their families and labor in rural areas far away from their homes. Now a prominent Chinese novelist and critic, Su was one of these “sent-down youth.”
“Before writing this piece, that life seemed so far away. My memories of it were dormant,” said Su to the News in Mandarin. “For a long time, I had not considered my identity to be defined by my history as a sent-down youth.”
Tony Fok, the composer of the music for the cantata, contacted Su in 2007 and visited his home in Cheshire, Conn. soon thereafter. Because the two had both been on Hainan Island during their “exile” from home, they spent a whole night reminiscing about their common memories. Fok proposed that they collaborate on a song to honor the memory of the sent-down generation, and Su said he was immediately interested.
“At that point, neither of us expected this to go to Carnegie Hall, to get so big,” said Su. “Our meeting and our collaboration has been so serendipitous. It must have been fate.”
With Su’s libretto and Fok’s music combined, the cantata was ready for audiences and a few concerts were given in China, in Guangzhou and Beijing. In 2010, Yale Concert Band Director Thomas Duffy discovered the piece and said he became particularly interested about the cantata because it captures a piece of history that few Americans know or understand. He said that the Yale Concert Band has a long history of bridging cultural differences through music. Duffy transcribed the piece for wind instruments and the Yale Concert Band began practicing it on the first day of spring semester.
During the concert, Duffy asked that members of the audience stand up if they were sent to the villages or had siblings and parents who were sent down. Roughly a third of the audience stood up and a large portion of the chorus members raised their hands as well.
The group of choral singers, known as the SYGQ (Sui Yue Gan Quan) Chorus, was created specifically for the performance of Su and Fok’s cantata. Members of the ad-hoc group include Chinese as well as non-Chinese singers from Connecticut and a few other states where participants were quick to volunteer, Su said.
“Any performance at Carnegie Hall speaks to the world,” said Su. “And that night, we were telling a story to the world.”
On the night of the concert, both the original Chinese lyrics and the English translation were displayed on a screen. Translations of the lyrics and program book were done by Austin Woerner ’08, who had been one of Su’s students while an undergraduate at Yale. He also composed an overture for the cantata.
“The entire generation has this common story. So what [Su and Fok] have done in writing that piece is speak on behalf of that generation and say things that maybe they feel and cannot say themselves,” said Woerner.
Su said that there has been some criticism of the overall upbeat nature of the cantata. He emphasized that the cantata was not written to mourn the past. To Su and Fok, the song is a tribute to the idealism and vigor of youth as well as the beauty of Hainan Island.
The cantata was preceded by performances of “Dragon Rhyme” by Chen Yi, “Haiku Symphony No. 4” by Josh Hummel, and “Day Trips for Horn and Wind Ensemble” by Paul Lansky. The latter two pieces were also premieres.
The Yale Concert Band performed the cantata for the first time in front of a smaller audience at Woolsey Hall on Feb. 11.