VC INTERVIEW | Conductor Jindong Cai on the US-China Music Institute’s China Now Music Festival

The fourth edition of the festival is taking place between October 12 and 17 at New York's Bard College-Conservatory of Music and online

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Tune into The Violin Channel on Tuesday, October 19 at 7:00 PM, to watch the 2021 China Now Music Festival's gala concert, entitled “Asian American Voices: American Stories, American Music", featuring a selection of important live symphonic works from this year's event. 

The US-China Music Institute of the Bard College Conservatory of Music is proving a leading force in introducing music from contemporary China to the United States, and in promoting musical exchanges between the two countries.

We recently sat down with conductor Jindong Cai, Director of the US-China Music Institute, Professor of Music and Arts at Bard College, and Associate Conductor of The Orchestra Now, to learn more.

 

Tell us about yourself, your upbringing, and the experience you bring to the Institute?

Although I was raised in China, most of my professional career has been in the United States. I work as a conductor in both professional and educational institutions. I really witnessed how Asian artists and Asian music have become more accessible in the past few decades. For example, when I came to America 30 years ago, nobody knew any Chinese instruments, but now many of these instruments have become regularly featured in American concerts.

More importantly, Asian American artists are taking a greater role in the music world of the 21st century. You can witness this in any symphony orchestra, opera house, or conservatory. The creation of the US-China Music Institute is a reflection of that trend. As the founding director, I hope I can use my experience to create a strong platform to enable a greater appreciation of the music from China and to provide new opportunities for artists to perform Chinese music.

 

 

Tell us about the US-China Music Institute. When was it established and what are its core mission and long-term goals?

The US-China Music Institute was founded in 2017 by conductor Jindong Cai and Robert Martin, founding director of the Bard College Conservatory of Music, with the mission to promote the study, performance, and appreciation of music from contemporary China — and to support musical exchange between the United States and China. In its first few years, the Institute has embarked on several groundbreaking projects, including the first degree-granting program in Chinese instrument performance in a U.S. conservatory. In addition, we hold an annual Chinese New Year Concert, a scholarly conference in the spring, and the China Now Music Festival every fall.

 

 

This October will see the fourth edition of the US-China Music Institute’s China Now Music Festival. Tell us about the event, its core focus, and why you will focus on the paradigm of “Asian American Voices” this year.

The China Now Music Festival is an annual series of events produced by the Institute and dedicated to promoting an understanding and appreciation of classical music from contemporary China. Each year’s festival explores a singular theme.

The inaugural festival in 2018, "Facing the Past, Looking to the Future: Chinese Composers in the 21st Century," presented U.S. and world premieres of orchestral works by 11 living Chinese composers in concerts at Bard College, Carnegie Hall, and Lincoln Center.

The following year, the festival presented "China and America: Unity in Music" at Bard College, Carnegie Hall, and Stanford University, and featured the world premiere of the symphonic oratorio Men of Iron and the Golden Spike, a major new work by Pulitzer Prize–winning composer Zhou Long honoring the Chinese railroad workers of the American West on the 150th anniversary of the completion of the Transcontinental Railroad.

Last season’s theme, "China and Beethoven," explored the many ways that China has embraced, interpreted, and enthusiastically appreciated the man and his work with a series of musical and scholarly online events, coinciding with the anniversary week of Beethoven’s birth in 1770.

This year, the China Now Music Festival is a platform for composers and musicians to tell stories of America and to reflect on society, culture, and history through the lens of many diverse experiences of Asians in America — including their struggles and their aspirations.

The festival’s composer in residence, Huang Ruo, exemplifies the artist as a social commentator. The three pieces by Huang presented in this festival, "Angel Island," "A Dust in Time," and "An American Soldier," touch on immigration, the pandemic, and anti-Asian discrimination. Huang believes that his music should move society forward, and these pieces exemplify this noble goal.

 

 

What can we expect to hear this year?

In addition to Huang Ruo, many other musical voices fill the festival’s concerts. Composer Tan Dun, dean of the Bard College Conservatory of Music, has established an international reputation as a composer who takes inspiration from traditional music, nature, and contemporary arts. His "Prayer and Blessing," written in the early stages of the pandemic, represents the broad reach of his style.

Korean American composer Jin Hi Kim crosses boundaries of genre while drawing on traditional ritual practice in her work "A Ritual for COVID-19." Bard’s own faculty member, Xinyan Li, expresses light emerging out of darkness to represent our journey through these dark times in a new work composed for the festival, "Awakening Light." Peng-Peng Gong takes inspiration from American musical traditions to describe the experience of a young man coming to America in "A Chinese in New York." Takuma Itoh honors the memory of women immigrating from Japan early in the 20th century in "Picture Brides."

The Del Sol Quartet joins us from San Francisco as ensemble in residence, and brings with them a program of works by a diverse group of innovative Asian American composers. New music by Erberk Eryılmaz, Vijay Iyer, Jungyoon Wie, and Erika Oba explore identity and cross-cultural expression with playful experiments in sound.

 

 

The festival is part of the Chinese Music Development Initiative, implemented by the Bard College and in partnership with the Central Conservatory of Music in Beijing. Tell us about the collaboration, and why you feel it’s important? What advantages do you see you’re able to offer both American and Chinese musicians?

We launched the Chinese Music Development Initiative in partnership with the Central Conservatory of Music to our four major programs: a degree program for Chinese instruments, an annual Chinese Music Festival, a program of scholarly conferences, and a Summer Academy for high school–age students. The Initiative allows for greater access to cultural exchange through our joint programs, including our unique opportunity for students of Chinese instruments to study here in the United States and to obtain a Western-style liberal arts education. At the same time, students of Western instruments at the Bard Conservatory have an opportunity to learn from and merge with a different musical culture through our programming and educational offerings. This is how 21st-century musicians should be trained — to have a more diverse musical language and global vision.

 

 

With such a turbulent global past two years, what message do you want this festival to share with the world?

In these times, we need to learn to listen to every voice with compassion, understanding, and fellowship. The stories of America include the experience of every immigrant who arrived on these shores, along with those who were displaced; those who found opportunity, along with those who did not. Asian American Voices presents stories that invite us all to reflect on how, through music, we can come together and truly hear one another.

 

 

What are you most looking forward to at this year’s edition of the festival?

I am most looking forward to working with The Orchestra Now again, in person, and to present some deeply emotional orchestral and choral works to a live audience. Also, I'm excited to listen to the other chamber works in the festival programming, all created by Asian American composers.

 

 

If we want to attend alive or watch online, how can we do so?

We created two events this year, especially for an online audience. One is a panel discussion on October 14 on Zoom, entitled "Artists Confronting Society," and the other is an online concert which will be streamed by the Fisher Center at Bard as well as by the Violin Channel. This concert will feature highlights of our choral and orchestral works and will be streamed on Tuesday, October 19 at 7:00PM, for free.

Visit the Festival's website for more information: barduschinamusic.org/asian-american-voices