Composer Weijun Chen dances away with audiences’ hearts in Aspen

The moment Weijun Chen puts his pencil to a piece of staff paper, he allows inspiration to overtake him. From the outside, watching him sketch notes onto a piece of paper, it may not seem like the most glamorous job, but when an orchestra is performing his music that he spent so long crafting, he feels truly alive.

Chen is a classical composer, writing music for symphony orchestras, chamber ensembles, instrumentalists, and singers, which is then performed at grand concert halls and music festivals all over the world. He is a renowned composer, best known for Three Earlier Songs, Watercolors, and Canoe, to name a few.

“I write every single note on the page, from vague ideas, sketches, to complete scores. In terms of the writing process itself, I am quite old-fashioned. I always start with pencil and staff paper, and eventually move to the computer during the engraving and mock-up stages. Once the piece is finished, I work closely with the musicians to bring the music to life. Often times, some of my works were written for a specific soloist or group of musicians, so the collaboration process starts during the writing stage. I also enjoy collaborating with artists from other disciplines, as my music often draws influence from poetry and visual arts,” said Chen.

Chen has seen much success throughout his career, but he believes the highlight came when he wrote the orchestral version of his piece Dancer. Already a success as a chamber piece, Chen decided to rework Dancer for an orchestra after being awarded the Jacob Druckman Prize by the Aspen Music Festival in 2015 with an invitation to the 2016 festival to premiere new work.

“I believe that writing for orchestra is a composer’s highest calling, and there is no better feeling than hearing your music performed by a large orchestra at a premier classical music festival in the beautiful mountains of Colorado,” said Chen.

Despite the title’s implications of continual movement and activity, Danceropens with somber stillness, a single chord that then gradually collapses under slowly descending scalar lines. As the glacial motion rises again through chromatic dissonances, gentle clusters form periodically, producing alternating moments of tension and relaxation. Then, after building in intensity, scale fragments and rapid turn figures cascade through the orchestra, initiating the swirling, dancing central section. This culminates in a growling climax and a grand pause, leading into the concluding slow section.

“When I was drafting this final slow section in February 2016, I was shocked and saddened to hear the news of American composer Steven Stucky’s passing. Stucky was the director of composition at the Aspen Music Festival where this piece later received its premiere. The last section unmistakably became an elegy, in memory of my beloved mentor,” said Chen.

Chen decided to create an orchestral version of Dancer after the success of the original chamber piece for several reasons. Musically, when he was working on the chamber version, he realized that the intended soundscape, in particular the overlapping scale lines, would have great potential written for an orchestra. When the opportunity arrived from the Aspen Music Festival in 2016, he jumped on it immediately.

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2016 Aspen Music Festival
Bowing after the premiere of Dancer
W/ Aspen Philharmonic Orchestra & conductor George Jackson

The orchestral version of Dancer is both an expansion and a reduction. By expansion, the ensemble got bigger by ten-fold, and Chen was able to fully take advantage of the color palate of an orchestra. Dovetailing techniques are used extensively in the piece, as Chen threads the scale materials across the entire orchestra. By reduction, he deleted a large portion of music from the chamber version, specifically the Spanish-dance-influenced melodic section, as he felt that the materials were out of focus and not as compelling.

“It was simply amazing to see how my music came alive in the hands of seventy incredibly talented young orchestral musicians, under the baton of Maestro Jackson. It was also immensely gratifying to hear the transformative improvements from one rehearsal to another, and the premiere performance was deeply moving,” said Chen.

After its premiere at the 2016 Aspen Music Festival, the performance received a brief mention in The Aspen Times. The reviewer, Harvey Steiman, stated that “Dancer explored resonant harmonies and sonorities and reflected fine command of orchestration and form.” The piece was also a finalist in the 2017-18 The American Prize in Composition, Orchestra Music.

“I felt extremely grateful. As composers, we completely rely on others (i.e., the musicians) to bring our wildest imaginations to life. It is even more true in an orchestral setting, simply due to the sheer number of players and moving parts. This piece would not exist without the support and dedication from the music festival, Maestro Jackson, and the amazing musicians of the Aspen Philharmonic Orchestra,” said Chen.

On top of its success, Dancer has deep meaning for Chen. The greatest reward, for the composer, was honoring his mentor and friend.

“It was impossible not to think of Steve when I was at the premiere in Aspen. I was honored to share this piece with many of his colleagues, friends, and students in the audience. I miss him dearly, and I hope that the success of the premiere would make him proud,” he concluded.

 

Cover photo by Ahron Cho

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