Huang Ruo: composer, musician, and … Celebrate Asia! contest winner?

By Vivian Miezianko
Northwest Asian Weekly

Last year’s Celebrate Asia! event at Benaroya Hall in 2010 (Photo by George Liu/NWAW)

What will a young pianist do when experiencing stage fright while performing? Will the projected path in his artistic development change?

Huang Ruo in front of the Seattle skyline (Photo provided by Huang Ruo)

Huang Ruo, a Chinese American composer based in New York, is the pianist described in the scenario above. He has won the first composition competition held by Celebrate Asia!, a committee that brings Asian classical musicians to perform at Benaroya Hall. Huang’s winning entry, “The Yellow Earth,” will be performed at Celebrate Asia!’s concert on Jan. 14.

Yoshi Minegishi, former chair of Celebrate Asia!, and his wife, Naomi, sponsored the competition.

Minegishi said, “The purpose was to promote young composers writing in Asian melody or Asian instruments.

The composition contest will be a very good legacy for [the] Seattle Symphony and Seattle. It will have a very bright future.”

In regard to the 47 works submitted for the contest, Minegishi said, “The level of skill and talent varies. … Among the top five, it was very difficult to decide.”

The composer hails from Hainan Island in southern China

Huang Ruo was born on Hainan Island in the late 1970s. His father, also a composer, began teaching him piano and composition when he was six. “I felt I was pushed to play the piano,” Huang said with a smile. “But I always love writing music. Playing the piano, you play other people’s works, not your own.”

Huang Ruo conducting a piece (Photo provided by Huang Ruo)

His father composed Western classical and traditional Chinese music and film scores. As a result, Huang listened to cassette tapes of these kinds of music growing up.

One time, as Huang played the piano onstage, something happened. “I played Bach’s difficult counterpoints. I was nervous and had a memory lapse, so I improvised. My teacher noticed my ability to improvise and told me I should study composition,” recounted Huang.

At age 12, Huang studied composition at the Shanghai Conservatory of Music. At the time, not only was he exposed to music by Mozart, but he was exposed to the works of 20th century composers. On his discovery of Stravinsky, Huang recalled, “My father sent me a cassette tape. I remember the A side is a Beethoven symphony, the B side is Debussy’s ‘La Mer’ and Stravinsky’s ‘The Rite of Spring.’ They’re very different, but I love them all. I am curious about Western classical and contemporary music and want to learn about them. I’m … like a … sponge, [I] want to absorb all the water [of music].”

His immense curiosity in music also led him to discover rock and roll and jazz. Huang said, “When I moved to Shanghai in the 80s, 90s, Chinese pop music was very much influenced by Western rock and roll. … [Some singers] wrote rock music with Chinese instruments and tunes.” Huang also loves folk music from different regions of China.

In 1995, Huang moved to the United States. He has since received a bachelor’s degree from the Oberlin Conservatory of Music and then master’s and doctorate degrees in composition from the Julliard School.

According to Huang’s website, he “draws equal inspiration from Chinese folk, Western avant-garde, rock, and jazz” to create his unique musical voice. His composition spans from orchestral and chamber works, to theater, modern dance, sound installation, folk rock, and film. Cited by The New Yorker as “one of the most intriguing of the new crop of Asian American composers,” Huang has had his works premiered and performed by orchestras and ensembles in the United States, Asia, and Europe.

The Yellow Earth

Huang’s winning entry for Celebrate Asia!’s composition competition, “The Yellow Earth,” is the third movement of his sheng concerto, “The Color Yellow,” which he composed a few years ago. Huang said, “I love this movement particularly, so I arranged it into an independent piece for the competition. This is the first time this movement is performed as an independent piece — this is the world premiere of it.”

Huang’s inspiration for “The Yellow Earth” came from China. “Yellow earth has many meanings to us,” explained Huang. “It’s the homeland and also means the people who live on this land. … For me, it’s about memory of my homeland.”

Huang’s instrument of choice,the sheng, is a mouth organ with more than a thousand years of history. Huang said, “Sheng was invented by [the] Chinese. I’m very attached to sheng and guqin [a traditional Chinese zither]. I love the idea of a piece using a Chinese instrument with a Western orchestra. It creates an interesting integration of colors and cultures.” Huang loves the sound of the sheng. He said, “Sheng has 36 bamboo pipes. … It’s very different from Western woodwind instruments…. For me, it’s a [look] back to my homeland.”

Minegishi noted that the piece “has tremendous Asian flavor” and that Huang possesses “very professional composition skill.” He remarked, “It just fits Celebrate Asia!’s atmosphere and theme. We thought this was the best.”

When Huang was told that he had won the composition contest, he was overjoyed. “I was more than just excited. … I felt it would be great to introduce this piece to the audience, to share [my] culture and something new. It’s not from ancient China but something new — my music is an integration of Western and Eastern cultures.”

A teacher and an explorer

Huang is teaching at the Purchase College, State University of New York. He goes to China often. In fact, he recently returned from conducting his own works in Beijing. On what he does in his spare time, Huang said, “I try to spend every minute I can to compose. I have so many thoughts [to put into music].” He also likes playing ping pong, going to concerts, and going to museums. “I love traveling and try to go whenever I can,” he continued. “I like to take pictures of landscapes and of the people I [meet] of different cultures. … I am an explorer.” ♦

Celebrate Asia!’s concert will be held at Benaroya Hall on Jan. 14. For more information, visit www.celebrateasia.org.

Vivian Miezianko can be reached at info@nwasianweekly.com.

2 Responses to “Huang Ruo: composer, musician, and … Celebrate Asia! contest winner?”

  1. Chris says:

    It is ridiculous that they awarded the prize to Huang Ruo. The competition specifically asked for a brand new piece for a world premiere performance with the Seattle Symphony. Instead they awarded it to a movement from an existing concerto the composer wrote sometime ago. No doubt it was slightly altered, but it is wrong for Seattle Symphony to even accept his submission. I did not enter, but I feel sorry for the other composers who did.

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