If Canada has any meaning to most Chinese, it is likely through a widely read essay written by the late Chairman Mao in praise of Dr. Norman Bethune, the Montreal doctor who ministered to Mao’s suffering soldiers during the Long March of the late 1930s.
Musically, according to Lawrence Cherney, artistic director of Toronto music presenter Soundstreams, the land of the Maple Leaf remains virtually faceless. Cherney made a gesture toward changing this situation for the better in May of this year, when Soundstreams took music by six Canadian composers—Brian Current, Dorothy Chang, Alexina Louie, Michael Oesterle, R. Murray Schafer, and Gilles Tremblay—to the Beijing Modern Music Festival, the major event of its kind in the People’s Republic of China. The concerts constituted, Cherney contends, the largest concentrated exposure of Canadian music ever to have taken place in Asia. And judging by the audience response to the two Soundstreams programs presented in the Chinese capital, the Canadian composers held their own against such major international figures as Finland’s Kaija Saariaho and Poland’s Krzsytof Penderecki, whose work shared billing on these programs.
A Chinese composer also appeared on one of the programs, in the person of Fuhong Shi, who is an alumna of and now a teacher at Beijing’s Central Conservatory of Music, the festival’s host venue. Therein lies a tale.
As she told it, while relaxing in a skyscraper office on the Conservatory’s multistructured campus, the tale began with the terrorist bombing of New York’s World Trade Center, an event which led to a wholesale cancellation of foreign-student visa applications to American universities, hers among them.
Denied the opportunity to do graduate work in the United States, Shi turned to Canada, taking her master’s degree at the University of Victoria and her doctorate at the University of Toronto.
“She is probably one of the most talented students ever to go through the University of Toronto [Faculty of Music],” says Cherney. Both he and Robert Aitken, artistic director of New Music Concerts, spotted her talent and commissioned music from her even before she returned to China.
“I passed an English exam to come to Canada,” she recalled, “but my first day in Victoria—August 28, 2003—I wondered where all the people were. I knew nothing about this place, my English was not really good enough, and I had only a few days before facing a three-hour seminar in bibliography.”
In retrospect, the shell-shocked student from Northeastern China thinks she was lucky to have landed in such an intimate, supportive environment, and lucky as well to have gone on to the University of Toronto, where Professor Gary Kulesha took her under his wing and helped her fly. Other senior composers helped her as well, including Montreal’s Gilles Tremblay, who facilitated having her string quartet workshopped, and even fed her in the company of his family.
All composers benefit from contact with performers who come to believe in their music. For Fuhong Shi, one instance of this came full circle when Toronto percussionist Ryan Scott—who worked on Shi’s first commissioned piece, Lightenings, for New Music Concerts—turned up in Beijing with Soundstreams to perform her latest composition, Distance. Both pieces are based in Western composition and involve Chinese instruments. Upon hearing Distance, Tadeusy Wielcki, artistic director of the Warsaw Autumn Music Festival, told this writer that in his opinion, Shi is one of the few composers he has heard who is able to bring such contrasting musical cultures together without sounding like a tourist.
The connecting link for Shi turned out to be four musicians of Taipei’s Chai Found Music Workshop, who play traditional Chinese instruments and had appeared previously for Soundstreams. An invitation from this virtuoso ensemble to fly to Taipei, under the cosponsorship of the Taiwanese capital’s National Concert Hall, eventually led to Soundstream’s ten-day, two-city tour in May. The success of the Beijing and Taipei engagements has led Cherney to look forward to further Soundsteams Asian adventures, with Korea and Japan on the near horizon.
Says Shi, “I was not getting commissions in China before being recognized in Canada. Of course, I would like to go back to Canada.”
“Fuhong Shi bridges a gap between East and West,” points out Cherney. “She can speak at the same time in two different languages using contemporary vocabularies. I’d like to take a singer with us next time we travel to Asia, and I’d like Shi to do a work for us for voice and instrumental ensemble.”
Audio: Distance (2013). Composed by Fuhong Shi. Performed by Soundstreams Chamber Ensemble with the Chai Found Music Workshop, Les Dala conductor. Image: Fuhong Shi. Image by: Sophie X Zhang.