‘Sky Mountain Light World’ concert bringing Chinese musicians to BYU

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Lan Weiwei’s path to becoming a professional musician began with a broken leg.

Born in Sichaun, China, Weiwei was 4 years old when her mother decided she should learn violin. But on the bike ride to buy the instrument, they were in an accident and Weiwei broke her leg.

By the time Weiwei recovered, she had missed the violin lessons. However, her mother’s friend knew someone teaching free pipa lessons who would also lend them the instrument.

“What’s a pipa?” Weiwei recalled her mother asking.

A pipa is a four-stringed plucked lute played in an upright position. Since Weiwei began playing the pipa 30 years ago, she’s performed around the world in countries like Germany, Mongolia, Estonia, Vietnam and Mexico and has premiered various solo pieces, concertos and chamber works by an array of composers. She’s currently a pipa performance lecturer at the Central Conservatory of Music in Beijing, China.

Chinese pipa soloist Lan Weiwei showcases her skills prior to the March 22 performance with the BYU Chamber Orchestra. The performance is part of the ongoing collaboration between the Central Conservatory of Music and BYU in the months leading up to a group of close to 200 performing arts students, faculty and others from BYU traveling to China for the China Homecoming Spectacular. (Claire Gentry)

“It was selected by destiny,” Weiwei said.

Now, Weiwei is bringing her talents to BYU, where she’ll solo with the BYU Chamber Orchestra during the “Sky Mountain Light World concert Friday, March 22, at 7:30 p.m. The collaboration concert will feature Weiwei, composers Jia Guoping and Dai Bo, and conductor Lin Tao, who will help BYU Orchestra Director Kory Katseanes conduct the March 22 concert. All of the visiting Chinese musicians are from China’s Central Conservatory of Music.

The concert is part of the ongoing collaboration between the Central Conservatory of Music and BYU in the months leading up to nearly 200 performing arts students, faculty and others from BYU traveling to China for the China Spectacular a performing tour created in celebration of the 40th anniversary of BYU sending a performing arts group to China for the first time.

The March 22 concert will be repeated in China on May 21 at the Central Conservatory of Music, though Weiwei and Tao’s roles will be filled by a different pipa soloist and conductor. Katseanes said this is because Weiwei is expecting a baby close to the May 21 concert and Tao has a conflicting concert schedule in China. Guoping and Bo will remain involved with the May 21 concert, however, and the program won’t change.

The music

Weiwei said the collaboration between the Central Conservatory of Music and BYU started about a year ago when BYU composition professor Stephen Jones invited a Central Conservatory of Music composer to give classes at BYU for a week. She became involved in the collaboration after the composer returned to Beijing.

She said Jones has “a deep knowledge” of Chinese composers and music, and he and the other BYU School of Music faculty members have been “very dedicated” to the details of her and her colleagues’ trip.

“They try their best to let me communicate with the students,” she said. “I was very glad to be involved with this project.”

During the March 22 BYU concert, Weiwei will solo in Jia Guoping’s piece “The Wind Passing Through the Vast World.” Program notes describe the composition as exploring the pipa’s “simple tone and steady resonance” and consists of a five-part structure.

Weiwei said the name “pipa” describes the basic techniques of playing, with “pi” meaning “pluck forward” and “pa” meaning “pluck backward.”

The program will also feature “Invisible Mountain” by Dai Bo, which combines elements of Chinese traditional music and western music techniques, according to the program notes. The piece “symbolizes the oriental sense of mystery and aspiration: mountainous overlapping, profound and abundant.”

Bo was diagnosed with congenital glaucoma when he was 5 months old and went through 14 eye surgeries before losing his sight at age 6.

“However, the adversity did not dampen his optimism towards life and only made him ever more perserverant in pursuing his education with his passion for music,” the program notes read.

The program also includes two pieces by BYU composers: “Above the Brightness of the Sun” by Stephen Jones and “Plutoids” by Neil Thornock, also a composition professor.
“Plutoids” is a “celebration of the importance of astronomy in our society,” according to the program notes, while “Above the Brightness of the Sun” is a meditation on the story of Joseph Smith.

The message

Conductor Lin Tao, speaking through BYU choral conducting master’s student Wenhao Mu who acted as a translator, said he feels fortunate all the program’s pieces were composed by living composers.

“It’s a very precious experience for me because we can directly communicate with these composers,” he said. “We cannot ask the great Beethoven or Mozart any questions, but we can still communicate with these important composers.”

He added that contemporary composers create pieces that reflect people’s daily lives.

“I do believe the audiences could feel a lot of things in common with their own lives,” he said.

Weiwei said practicing music is like a religion to her as she tries to erase her mistakes every time she practices. She also noted the importance of diversity in music. “If you just play your own music … you are only standing for your own culture.”

Weiwei said the most important and meaningful thing BYU students can do when they travel to China this May is to see what China and Chinese music students are like and how they can all communicate through music.

Tao said he remembers when the BYU Young Ambassadors first came to China in 1979, which “opened a new time” for art in China. He said “‘yes’ without any hesitation,” when given the opportunity to collaborate with BYU.

Though he hasn’t been on campus long, he said he can “very strongly sense the atmosphere of art” and no matter what level of music is being played, musicians need a “great amount of exchange.”

He also said while conducting the BYU Chamber Orchestra during rehearsal, he felt “we are just like family and like friends.”

“We are learning from each other,” he said. “I would like to generate an atmosphere of harmony between myself and the whole ensemble.”

BYU’s China Spectacular tour includes a traveling company of more than 200 performers and crew from the International Folk Dance Ensemble, the Native American section of Living Legends, the BYU Young Ambassadors, BYU Vocal Point, the Cougarettes, Cosmo’s Dunk Team and one couple from the Ballroom Dance Company. Katseanes is taking the BYU Chamber Orchestra, which he said will act as the “band” for the other groups.

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