Memories of son inspire composer Chen Qigang to escape his creative abyss

Chen Qigang lost interest in music when his only child was killed. But he drew on his happy memories to bounce back with a new opus

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 16 April, 2015, 11:58pm
UPDATED : Friday, 17 April, 2015, 1:39pm

A top mainland Chinese composer has rediscovered his shattered creative life through a new work in memory of his only son and musical partner.

Paris-based Chen Qigang, last pupil of the late French master composer Olivier Messiaen, lost his 29-year old son, Yuli, in a car accident in Zurich - a tragedy that brought his prolific creativity to a sudden halt.

"By September 3, 2012, I had finished the piano score of Luan Tan, then came the news the following day. After that, I couldn't pull myself together to do the orchestration. I was no longer interested in completing the piece," Chen recalls.

The work, running for more than 20 minutes, will be premiered tonight at the Hong Kong Cultural Centre Concert Hall in Tsim Sha Tsui. It was commissioned in 2010 by Edo de Waart, then chief conductor of the Hong Kong Philharmonic.

The Royal Liverpool Philharmonic and the French Radio Philharmonic later joined as co-commissioning parties for a project deemed to be different to Chen's previous output.

"I wanted a breakthrough of my musical style, which tended to be refined, melancholy, and soft. So I chose the folkish elements in China's local theatrical tradition that is strong in rhythm and dynamics.

"The title Luan Tan literally means chaotic or random playing. The overall tone is energetic and happy, and that's my boy's personality," he says.

But now the jolly mood is all that the 64-year-old composer has in his music to remember his son by.

The work will be dedicated to Yuli, a New York-trained recording specialist who worked as a co-producer on such musical projects as the 2008 Beijing Olympics opening ceremony and blockbuster films by director Zhang Yimou, including the acclaimed The Flowers of War, which was Yuli's last production.

"I can't even touch those films these days, they'd bring back so many memories.

"My son was born under the one-child policy, so all our ideals and pursuits were built around him. The sudden loss meant we are left without an anchor, and have to rethink the meaning of life," he says.

The Shanghai-born composer also reflects on his home country, which he left for Paris on full scholarship in 1984 before becoming a French citizen in 1992.

“Economically China has undergone enormous change and living conditions have gone up tremendously. But culturally it’s inferior to 30 years ago when people nowadays have nothing to pursue but material things. Even those in the intellectual circles are aspired only in material pursuit and that’s very different from those in the 1980s who had higher ideals for the country,” he said.

“But there is nothing for people like me to do about it. Perhaps the best way out is to allow things to resolve in their own ways,” he added.

Chen says the turning point came when he left Paris to live on a hillside in rural Zhejiang province.

"I joined my friend at his Gonggeng School at Suichang for poor children in the mountainous region. There I rediscovered hardship in life is actually a gift."

It was at the rural school that Chen picked up composing again, finishing the score for the film Coming Home by Zhang Yimou, for which he won a Golden Horse Award last year; a trumpet concerto for the BBC Prom last year, and the orchestration of Luan Tan, which will be performed in Liverpool and then Paris after tonight's premiere under conductor Zhang Xian.

The piece, he says, will feature a total of 10 variations of a motif first introduced by the flute, and the volume will be on a gradual rise until it ends at the climax.

Asked if the abrupt stop reflects Yuli's sudden passing prime, "the listener has the final say", he says. "But my son and I co-exist in the music, which is positive, dynamic and full of life."