Bright Sheng

updated 22 May 2002

Bright Sheng
Photo: Wah Lui
Proclaimed "an innovative composer who merges diverse musical customs in works that transcend conventional aesthetic boundaries," Bright Sheng received the coveted MacArthur Foundation Fellowship — the so-called "Genius Award" — in November 2001. "Sheng is a fresh voice in cross-cultural music," the Foundation Committee further noted. "He will continue to be an important leader in exploring and bridging musical traditions."

Indeed, the new millennium promises to be an exciting time for Sheng. Within the 21st century's first week, he had two world premieres: Nanking! Nanking!, an orchestral work honoring those who endured the atrocities of the Rape of Nanking, commissioned and premiered on 2 January 2000 by the NDR (North German Radio) Symphony Orchestra in Hamburg, conducted by Christoph Eschenbach; and Red Silk Dance, a piano concerto premiered on January 6th by the commissioning Boston Symphony, with soloist Emanuel Ax and conductor Robert Spano. In May-June 2000, the Spoleto USA Festival presented 8 performances of a visually stunning production of The Silver River (1997; rev. 2000), Sheng's multi-cultural, music theater tale of star-crossed lovers, set to a libretto by David Henry Hwang. Directed by Ong Keng Sen, it has been performed subsequently in Philadelphia at the Prince Music Theatre Festival, and in Singapore. In July 2002, The Silver River will be a focus of New York's Lincoln Center Festival, accompanied by concerts of and symposia on Sheng's music. He currently is working on two major commissions, both scheduled to premiere in 2003: for the Santa Fe Opera, Madame Mao, based on the story of Mao's duplicitous wife and set to a libretto by the director Colin Graham; and a quadruple concerto for the New York Philharmonic, featuring soloists Yo-Yo Ma and Emanuel Ax.

Major performances of Sheng's music during the 2000-2001 season included: the world premiere of Tibetan Dance (Verdehr Trio); and the New York premieres of Red Silk Dance (Ax, Masur, New York Philharmonic) and the tone poems Flute Moon (Gerard Schwarz, New York Chamber Symphony) and China Dreams (Spano, Saint Louis Symphony). For the 2001-02 season, the Brooklyn Philharmonic, conducted by Robert Spano, offered the world premiere of Sheng's concert opener Tibetan Swing, a Koussevitsky commission, and the New York premiere of Nanking! Nanking!. As part of their "New Americans" Series, the National Symphony under conductor Leonard Slatkin presented Sheng's H'un (Lacerations): In Memoriam 1966-76, his dramatic orchestral portrait of the Chinese Cultural Revolution. The frequently-performed H'un ("naked emotionalism...a battle of the spirit", The New York Times), which premiered in 1988, established Sheng's reputation as a composer, and has been performed by major orchestras around the world, including the New York Philharmonic, Chicago Symphony, Cleveland Orchestra, and the Tokyo Philharmonic. Kurt Masur and the New York Philharmonic performed H'un in six cities on their 1993 European tour; it was also featured at the Warsaw Autumn Festival in 1994.

In addition to composing, Sheng is an active conductor and pianist, and frequently serves as musical advisor to leading orchestras and festivals. He has performed in many of the world's most important music venues, including Lincoln Center, Carnegie Hall, and the Kennedy Center, and has been a guest conductor for the San Francisco Symphony, Seattle Symphony, New York Chamber Symphony, San Francisco Ballet, and the Spoleto USA Festival, among others. Since 1998, Sheng has been Artistic Advisor to the highly regarded "Silk Road Project," an international program that identifies, archives, and interprets musical traditions of the Far Eastern trade routes. He currently is Artist-in-Residence with the Washington Performing Arts Society, and will be Director of the Festival of Contemporary Music at the Tanglewood Music Center in July 2002. Sheng has also served as Distinguished Guest Composer at the Winnipeg New Music Festival (2001); co-Artistic Director (with Gerard Schwarz) of the Seattle Symphony's "Pacific Rim" Festival (2001); Artistic Director of the San Francisco Symphony's "Wet Ink 93" Festival; and Composer-in-Residence with the Santa Fe Chamber Music Festival (1993). From 1992 to 1994, he was resident composer with the Seattle Symphony. While serving in the same capacity for the Lyric Opera of Chicago (1989-1992), Sheng wrote The Song of Majnun (1992), a one-act opera about ill-fated lovers, in collaboration with librettist Andrew Porter. Majnun has subsequently received five other productions nationwide and was recorded by the Houston Grand Opera on the Delos label.

Bright Sheng has collaborated with many distinguished musicians: Leonard Bernstein, Kurt Masur, Christoph Eschenbach, Gerard Schwarz, Leonard Slatkin, David Zinman, Neemi Järvi, Robert Spano, Hugh Wolff, Yo-Yo Ma, Peter Serkin, Emanuel Ax, and Cho-Liang Lin, to name a few. Among the many other organizations which have commissioned and performed his works are: the Los Angeles Philharmonic, Boston Symphony, Philadelphia Orchestra, Houston Symphony, Seattle Symphony, Saint Paul Chamber Orchestra, Carnegie Hall, the Shanghai Symphony, Singapore Symphony, the Danish and Finnish Radio symphony orchestras, Hong Kong Philharmonic, Orchestra sinfonica dell'Accademia Nazionale de Santa Cecilia, the Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center, the Tanglewood and Aspen music festivals, the Cheltenham (U.K.) International Music Festival, and the Hong Kong Arts Festival.

Born in 6 December 1955 in Shanghai, China, Bright Sheng began piano studies with his mother at the age of four. During the "Cultural Revolution," he worked for seven years as a pianist and percussionist in a folk music and dance troupe in Qinghai Province near the Tibetan border, where he also studied and collected folk music. In 1978, when universities reopened, he was one of the first students accepted by the Shanghai Conservatory of Music, where he earned his undergraduate degree in music composition. He moved to New York in l982 and received graduate degrees at Queens College (M.A.), and Columbia University (D.M.A.). Among his important teachers were Leonard Bernstein (composition and conducting), George Perle, Hugo Weisgall, Chou Wen-Chung, and Jack Beeson.

In addition to the MacArthur Foundation fellowship, and awards received in China and Europe, Sheng has received a number of prizes in the United States from: the National Endowment for the Arts; American Academy and Institute of Arts and Letters; the Guggenheim, Rockefeller, Naumberg, Jerome, Koussevetzky, and Copland foundations; the Mary Flagler Cary Charitable Trust, the Kennedy Center, and Tanglewood Music Center. In 2001, he was the recipient of the Michigan Arts Award and received a Rachham fellowship from the University of Michigan. At the invitation of President Clinton, in 1999, Sheng received a special commission from the White House; the resulting Three Songs for Pipa and Cello was premiered there by soloists Wu Man and Yo-Yo Ma at a State Dinner honoring the Chinese Premiere Zhou Rongji.

Bright Sheng's music is published exclusively by G. Schirmer, Inc. His discography includes recordings on the Sony Classical, BIS, Delos, Koch International, New World, and Naxos labels. Since 1995, Sheng has been Professor of Music in composition at the University of Michigan.

May 2002


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