Concert showcases BYU-China collaboration

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BYU Orchestras Director Kory Katseanas stood at the front of the practice room before the BYU Chamber Orchestra‘s “Sky Mountain Light World” concert Friday, March 22.

Katseanas spoke of the incredible experience he had with the orchestra’s four guests — Chinese composers Jia Guoping and Dai Bo, conductor Lin Tao, and Pipa performer Lan Weiwei — at BYU.

“Don’t forget what you have felt this week and what you have learned,” Katseanas said. “There has been something special about our guests who have come here.”

The concert was a musical collaboration between the BYU Chamber Orchestra, the four Chinese musicians and two BYU composition professors.

The orchestra performed four compositions that represented the title “Sky Mountain Light World.” Under the direction of Katseanas and Tao, the set for the concert included “Plutoids” by Neil Thornock, “Invisible Mountain” by Bo, “Above the Brightness of the Sun” by Stephen Jones and “The Wind Passing Through the World” by Guoping.

The preparation

The orchestra started practicing the compositions in January to prepare for the Chinese musicians’ arrival March 17. Cello performance major Nathan Cox said the Chinese compositions didn’t make complete sense until Tao conducted.

“As soon as (Tao) started conducting in rehearsal on Wednesday, I was like, ‘Wow, we’ve never sounded this good with this piece. These pieces never made as much sense,'” Cox said.

Violin performance major and first violinist Donny Evans said it may have been harder, especially for the audience, to connect with the compositions because the tonalities are so different than what the orchestra normally plays.

“It’s really interesting and a contrast to what we normally play — it’s not tonal at all,” Evans said. “There are so many motives that come back. One of the pieces we played had a passacaglia where this fugue subject keeps coming back and you can hear it in the voices. It’s just referencing different tonalities that we’re not used to.”

Chinese conductor Lin Tao conducts the BYU Chamber Orchestra in its concert “Sky Mountain Light World” on Friday, March 22. (Rachel Keeler)

Cox said one way Tao influenced the orchestra’s performance of the composition was through his clear ictus, the accent on the syllable or downbeat.

“Somehow (Tao) was able to communicate with his gestures, with his facial expressions, the formal structure of the piece — but more than that, the meaning of the piece, (its) expression,” Cox said.

Composition professor Stephen Jones said he knew this week would result in tremendous success in the first rehearsal when Weiwei performed as the pipa soloist with the orchestra.

“I felt the students stepped up in a way they couldn’t before because they didn’t have that partner,” Jones said. “And now that she was present in the rehearsal, it was electric to listen to the exchange between the pipa and the (orchestra).”

The concert and its aftermath

Guoping, composer of the pipa concerto “The Wind Passing Through the Vast World,” speaking through Wenhao Mu who acted as a translator, said the piece premiered two years ago in China by a Chinese orchestra, but he was anxious to hear the piece performed by BYU.

From left: Lin Tao, Kory Katseanas, Nathan Thornock, Stephen Jones, Jai Guoping, Dai Bo and Lan Weiwei take a final bow with the BYU Chamber Orchestra on March 22. (Rachel Keeler)

“I was looking forward to this performance,” Guoping said. “The performance was a little bit different than back in China. The orchestra here have their own way to express the music, but in a very beautiful and subtle way, and I like it.”

The concert concluded with a standing ovation from the audience and each composer came to the stage for the final bow with the orchestra.

The BYU Chamber Orchestra held a reception following the concert to commemorate its demanding, week-long preparation with its Chinese guests and the final product of their performance.

“This week was like swimming in chocolate. It was such a great experience,” Katseanas said. He turned to Tao and said, “to play under your bouton and direction was an honor.”

Katseanas expressed his appreciation to the Chinese musicians. He said they had been extremely giving during this exchange and he was grateful for the friendship they’ve created.

The BYU Chamber Orchestra will be traveling to China in May to perform as part of what Katseanas called a “Homecoming Spectacular for China.”

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