A remarkable concert awaits the Orchestra Hall audience on November 17th when the work of Grammy-nominated composer, Zhou Tian will be performed. The piece commemorates the 150th anniversary of the completion of the transcontinental railroad, bringing attention to the Chinese immigrant labor oppression during its period of construction and paying homage to the laborers that made-up a majority of the work force. Having commissioned Zhou Tian’s newest piece Transcend to 13 orchestras, the Chicago Youth Symphony Orchestra is the only youth orchestra to perform it. In addition, Illinois Council of Orchestras’ Conductor of the Year Award, Allen Tinkham will be conducting.
Composer Zhou Tian generously agreed to answer questions about how he came to create this work, the research he did and his interest in this topic. Come and enjoy this powerful concert.
-What inspired you to take on the work of
creating your newest work, Transcend?
2 years ago, I was delighted to have been invited to compose a new work commemorating the 150th anniversary of the First Transcontinental Railroad’s completion in May 2019. When I learned that 13 American orchestras — many of which located along the route of the Railroad — would join forces together to commission and premiere this new work across the country, I was truly honored, as I knew the significant cultural impact this project would entail.
During my yearlong research and travel on this piece – and I have never done so much research for a single piece – I encountered many kind people who gave me inspirations. For example, while in Omaha, a docent at a local museum, who was railroad worker for the Union Pacific for 30 years, told me the true story of the telegraph of a single word:
On May 10, 1869, when the Railroad was completed and the two trains met in Promontory Point, UT, a single word was sent across the United States via one of the first nationwide telegraphs to celebrate this monumental achievement. That single word was “done.” And it was sent through the Morse code.
This was so inspiring that, as soon as he said that, I knew this story would be incorporated into the piece in a significant way. I soon decided to base the entire last movement of the piece on the rhythm of the word “done” in Morse code. Throughout the finale, “done” transforms into an exciting rhythmic motif and is passed back and forth to numerous instruments in the orchestra. Thus the title of the last movement is, you guessed it, “D-O-N-E.”
-Your new work Transcend commemorates the 150th anniversary of the completion of the transcontinental Railroad, a powerful moment in the history of the United States. Before taking on this project, what was your awareness of this period of time?
I only knew the existence of the Railroad before the beginning of the project. I didn’t know the significance of the Railroad in the American history – as something comparable to the moon-landing. I wasn’t aware the incredible hardship and cultural impact it had – as a symbol of human perseverance and the relentless pursuit of better life for all. This has been an eye-opening experience for me, not only as a composer, but also as a human being.
-Transcend brings attention to the Chinese immigrant labor oppression during its period of construction and pays homage to the laborers that made-up a majority of the work- force. Can you share some of your experiences as you did research for this project?
Begun in 1862 and completed in 1869, the Transcontinental Railroad effectively linked the US from east to west for the first time. Its cultural heritage includes the contribution of a thousands-strong Chinese and Irish workforce who toiled in severe weather and cruel working conditions. Numerous “hell on wheels” towns proliferated along the construction route and became famous for rapid growth and infamous for lawlessness. As the settlements pushed westward, there was a mixing of ethnic groups and cultures. Unfortunately, as the daunting task of laying tracks over difficult terrain increased, many workers perished, and many of the rest were denied the American dream by the enactment of the Chinese Exclusion Act in 1882. But those who stayed brought traditional art and music into the fabric of American culture.
As a Chinese-born composer who immigrated to this country, educated at the nation’s top music schools, and now serving at one of its finest institutions, I was moved to create this new work to tell a musical story, to celebrate human perseverance, and to pay tribute to my own cultural heritage.
– The Chicago Youth Symphony Orchestra is the only youth orchestra to perform this new work. What were some factors that influenced this choice?
We wanted to raise awareness of new symphonic music for the young people out there. Most young classical musicians play a lot of music written hundreds of years ago. This is an opportunity to reach out to them. I hope they will enjoy the fact that in Transcend, behind the power and edginess, there’s also strong lineage from what they know and love embedded in the piece. All pieces of music were “new music” at a time, and how fun and exciting to be on one of those pieces in 2019!
-Were there any unexpected moments that the
work on this project revealed? Is there a particular take away
that you wish for the audience?
I found out that the biggest challenge wasn’t writing a piece about the Railroad or its impact. The biggest challenge is to strike a right balance between purity of music and cultural relevance, so even for an audience who doesn’t know anything about the Transcontinental Railroad they can still enjoy “Transcend” just as an exciting and moving piece of music. Because at the end of the day, it’s the quality of music that counts the most.
The complete program for CYSO’s November 17 concert will be as follows:
- Zhou Tian (b. 1981) | Transcend
Performed by CYSO’s Philharmonic Orchestra
- Serge Koussevitzky (1874 – 1951) | Concerto for Double Bass
Nicholas Boettcher, bass
- Augusta Read Thomas (b. 1964) | Of Paradise and Light
- Camille Saint-Saëns (1835 – 1921) | Symphony No. 3 in C minor, op. 78 “Organ Symphony”
David Schrader, organ
Photos: Courtesy of Illinois Youth Orchestra