When The Philadelphia Orchestra gives the first full concert of the 2014 Tour of Asia & China Residency tonight, it will be the first time the ensemble has performed outside the U.S. under the leadership of Music Director Yannick Nézet-Séguin. The program for this milestone performance at Beijing’s National Centre for the Performing Arts includes Tchaikovsky’s Symphony No. 6 (“Pathétique”) and, in a special dedication to Chinese audiences, Tan Dun’s Nu Shu: The Secret Songs of Women, Symphony for Microfilms, Harp, and Orchestra.
The world-renowned Chinese composer, who is serving as artistic advisor of the Orchestra’s 2014 China concerts and Residency activities, wrote Nu Shu for Philadelphia Orchestra Principal Harp Elizabeth Hainen. The multi-media composition received its American premiere in Verizon Hall in October 2013 with the Orchestra under the baton of Nézet-Séguin. Audiences greeted it with standing ovations.
Principal Harp Elizabeth Hainen, Yannick, and The Philadelphia Orchestra performing the U.S. premiere of Nu Shu.
At the heart of Nu Shu is a disappearing language, created in Hunan, China, in the 13th century. Secretly devised by women who were forbidden to learn the men’s language, it was perpetuated through the generations by reading, writing, and, above all, singing.
“This language was passed on … always from a mother to daughter and always by singing,” says Tan Dun. “This is the only women’s language in the world and only a few people—very, very old women—know the secret language. And I immediately got fascinated by it.”
Tan Dun traveled to the remote village in his native Hunan province where only a handful of women still speak the language. He made 200 hours of video and audio recordings and produced a series of short films with evocative titles like Secret Fan, Dressing for the Wedding, Longing for her Sister, and Grandmother’s Echo.
“They’re very powerful. Very emotional,” says Hainen of the films, which each depict a rite of passage. “And just beautiful. Beautiful events. Tan has managed to capture the essence of this time and this place through this music and through this footage.”
The haunting singing of the women on the films is woven together with the orchestra and solo harp, an instrument the composer chose because it is “the most feminine.” “I want the harp to serve a very, very dramatic sound source to link this ancient tradition of the women’s language—singing, and reading, and writing—to the future sounds of The Philadelphia Orchestra and modern orchestras,” says Tan Dun.
“He always has this very creative, amazing, genius way of taking history and weaving it into his music,” says Hainen, who compares the harp’s role in the piece to Sheherazade, the famed narrator of The Arabian Nights whose skilled storytelling keeps her alive. “He’s a wonderful, wonderful composer.”
All performances of Nu Shu: The Secret Songs of Women are dedicated to the Chinese audiences. After the concert in Beijing, the Orchestra presents Nu Shu twice more during the tour: in Shenzhen and, in what is sure to be a powerful performance, in Changsha, Hunan—the birthplace of both the Nu Shu language and Tan Dun himself.