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Bright Sheng: "Black Swan". The composer and his work

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Video transcript

(orchestra music) - When you ask composers who their favorite composer is, you get unusual answers. Richard Strauss, for example, who wrote Elektra and Rosenkavalier and the great tone poems, Till Eulenspiegel, Zarathustra, his favorite composer was Mozart. Tchaikovsky, this great romantic who wrote music that was so passionate and so full of drama, his favorite composer was Mozart. You wouldn't think that, and they used them a lot, I mean, Strauss for example, conducted Mozart a lot. Tchaikovsky actually wrote a suite called Mozartiana, where he took Mozart pieces and orchestrated them in the Liszt version, which is a little unusual, but it was still Mozart. Well if you ask Bright Sheng, the Chinese-American composer, I think he would say Brahms and he orchestrated this gorgeous piano piano piece, Opus 118 No. 2 of Brahms. - To me this is more than inspiration, I just simply used the Brahms piece, that Opus 118 No. 2, which is one of my favorite piano pieces as a pianist, and I made arrangements to make an orchestra version. - The music is serene and tender and he uses the orchestra in a very interesting way. So when I say orchestrate, clearly that means taking piano music and putting it in an orchestra, so if you have a single note on the piano, you could play it on, let's say for, in the middle register, it could be on an oboe or a trumpet or a clarinet or a flute or a violin or a viola or a cello, they could all play the same note, you have to make a decision, what do you wanna convey to illuminate the music, but also to keep it interesting? So Bright begins the piece using flutes and violins to play the melody in a very simple simple way. (orchestra music) This melody then gets played by the oboe and then with the flute. After those repetitions of the melody, the second melody comes in. He puts this into the brass instruments. Conversation between the trumpets and the horns. Then the third section of the work begins and he again brings the tune into the violins but he uses the harp as an accompaniment, he uses pizzicato cello bass to give it a little rhythmic interest, something you wouldn't have normally expected from Brahms. - Of course, I went a little bit beyond Brahms' orchestration. I added some things that not traditionally Brahms would do but I think I added to the piece. For example, Brahms rarely used a harp in his music, only a few exceptions, but most of the symphony orchestra works he never used harps so I used a harp. And the pizzicato part that I used is a melodic part, which is also quite unusual. It's a little bit outside Brahms' typical style. - The choral of the brass is now repeated, but this time in the strings, and it ends with a beautiful quartet for four ones. The new material begins, so now this is what we could call the middle section or the B section, the new material begins with the flute and oboe playing the melody, string accompaniment, a lot of pizzicato in the cellos and violas. Again, it's the kind of thing where I point out the pizzicato, you'll notice it, but if I had not pointed it out, it just seems organic, it seems natural. The repetition of this melody now is played in octaves between the first and second violin, solo, so it's just two players, and a third voice kind of making it into a trio and this voice is the voice of the cello, so this is a trio for two violins and a cello, the repetition of that. The third repetition of that melody is now done as a brass choral. Halfway through, he brings in the harp. You wouldn't expect the harp to be part of a brass choral, but listen to this, it's really quite magical, what he does. Next section begins with the strings playing in this very warm-hearted, loud, thick, gorgeous way. It leads us slowly back to a repetition of the very beginning of the piece, this time done even softer and with more restraint. This time, I pull back and try to make the music just linger a little bit longer in a very soft and beautiful way. Again, the brass choral comes back, as it did the first time. This time, instead of the strings repeating the brass choral, he uses the woodwinds. What Bright does is he uses his tremendous sensitivity and musical knowledge and imagination to bring this piece to life. Without having analyzed it as I have, it would be fine, you don't need to know that analysis at all, it is just gorgeous. But knowing it just shows you the kind of work that composers do and I remember when Bright told me he was working on this, he thought it was gonna be easy. Well, it turned out to be quite difficult because he was very careful to try to make it seem and feel organic. - I tried to use my imagination, the color as a pianist when I perform that on the piano, that I couldn't do because with pianos, we're always thinking, oh this is an oboe playing, this is a horn playing, this and that, so in my orchestration of this arrangement, I tried to bring out the colors that I couldn't do as a pianist. - He certainly wasn't trying to orchestrate it in a way that Brahms would, no. But it certainly is true to the spirit of the music.