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A U of M conductor returns a musical masterpiece to its homeland.

The Chinese appointment
by Matt Timberlake

  Maestro Pu-Qi Jiang

U of M conductor Pu-Qi Jiang says he chose to come to Memphis because of The Rudi E. Scheidt School of Music's unique approach to learning — the University is the only school in Tennessee and one of only a few in the nation to offer a Doctor of Musical Arts.

Maestro Pu-Qi Jiang flew back to his country of origin last summer and took an old friend with him.

Last May, the associate professor of conducting at the U of M's Rudi E. Scheidt School of Music traveled to China to serve as musical director of the Jiangsu Symphony Orchestra in Nanjing during an eight-month sabbatical away from Memphis, the city of rock and blues. Jumping directly into work, he and the orchestra players held their first concert, a program of Russian music, on May 28. But it was another piece performed at the end of 2005 that had Dr. Jiang excited.

Jiang conducted Das Lied von der Erde (The Song of the Earth) in Chinese for the first time ever. The piece, originally written in German by the Austrian composer Gustav Mahler in 1907-08, is based on a translation of Chinese poems (first into French, then into German) as well as a series of misfortunes taken directly from Mahler's own life. A passionate meditation on the wonders of Earth and the simple elegance of life upon it, the work is well known in the Western world, performed and recorded often in Europe and North America. But, perhaps because so much of its artistic richness comes from the German lyrics, Das Lied is not well known in China.

"One and one-third billion Chinese have never heard Das Lied von der Erde sung in Chinese," says Jiang. "I wanted them to hear it."

Since discovering the music in the 1960s while a conducting student in the Shanghai Conservatory, Jiang has felt a deep connection to it, both because of the sweeping sprawl of the music and the "we-all-suffer-the-same-human-condition" lyrics.

Jiang wanted to return Das Lied to its spiritual origin, his origin. Two entities from China returning together after artistic reexamination in the West, bringing it all back home.

A Chinese connection

Jiang, who is director of orchestral activities at the U of M, came to the United States from China in 1986 after almost 20 years of leading orchestras and ensembles in his native country. After earning his master's and doctorate of music in orchestral conducting from the University of Cincinnati's College-Conservatory of Music, under the tutelage of Maestro Gerhard Samuel, he made his way across the U.S., teaching and conducting at universities and other organizations before landing at the U of M in 2000.
Jiang in class

Jiang has an interest in introducing music to students of all ages; he often teaches youth symphony camps.

But to find the seeds of Jiang's deep love for Mahler, and specifically Das Lied von der Erde, one must fall further into the history of his musical development. Mahler's nine symphonies meant so much to Jiang that he wrote his dissertation, "An Integration of Ancient Chinese Poetry and Western Post-Romantic Music: A Study of Gustav Mahler's Das Lied von der Erde," on the great composer's work.

Jiang has conducted the piece many times during his career. "Love was instantaneous. The piece is heartbreakingly perfect," he says. To Jiang, this symphonic piece is more than a sequence of lovely notes and angelic voices. Two artists, separated by time, distance and culture, giving birth to the art involved. The content belongs in no one place, no one dynasty. It's the deeper truths and secrets of the 100-year-old piece that draw Jiang back to it again and again.

An early history lesson

Poetry flourished in China during the years 618 to 907, an era recorded in history as the Tang dynasty. Li Bai (701-762), called the "prince of poetry" by his contemporaries and as tall a figure in Asian literature as William Shakespeare is in the West, emerged from the frothing sea of creativity to serve as the movement's figurehead. Famous for his technical skill and ability to portray the universal experience of life with grace and simplicity, Li Bai's poems often depict the joyous moments of existence without forgetting the dark and dismal ones. Four of the six songs in Das Lied are based on Li Bai's work. The other two are assembled by Mahler from poems written by the Tang masters Qian Qi, Meng Haoran and Wang-Wei.

Mahler spent his life in awe of nature and its beauty — that is where he drew much of his inspiration for composition. In 1908 he wrote to a friend, "For years I've been used to constant and vigorous exercise, roaming about through forests and mountains, and then bringing home my drafts like prizes plundered from nature. I would go to my desk only as a peasant goes to the barn, just to give shape to my sketches."

The loss of his daughter, though, and a cardiac condition that confined him to his home sent the composer into a dark mood. But a book of ancient Chinese poetry, a gift from a concerned friend, posted his bail. Besides the beautiful imagery the words created, the Tang poets wrote of life on Earth in such a reverent way that Mahler was able to see beyond his private misery and know that the natural world is indeed a wonderful thing. The seeds planted for a major work, Mahler began work on Das Lied von der Erde.

Bringing it home

As the 2005 spring semester ended at the U of M, Jiang packed for an eight-month sabbatical to his home country. An appointment with the Jiangsu Symphony Orchestra awaited him.

"I'm very thankful to the University of Memphis for allowing me to take the time to do this," says Jiang. "Not only the administration, but the other members of the music faculty who helped out here while I was away."

During his time in Nanjing, he stayed incredibly busy, giving 15 lectures in five cities and conducting six masterworks and six joint concerts, two of which were broadcast by Central China Television (CCTV, the Chinese equivalent to the BBC). Das Lied was only one of his many concerns, but it was the most important, and the members of his borrowed orchestra understood it as well as Jiang did.

"The musicians knew this was a page of Chinese music history," says Jiang. "The first time the new translation of this piece was performed in Chinese, it would become part of the musical history of China. The piece is a difficult one to play, and the orchestra wanted to do it well. Rehearsals were intense. They were very excited, very interested."

  Jiangsu Symphony Orchestra

Jiang conducting the Jiangsu Symphony Orchestra.

The Chinese language version of Gustav Mahler's Das Lied von der Erde premiered Nov. 25, 2005, on the grand and famous stage of the Shanghai Concert Hall, which Jiang calls "the Chinese Carnegie Hall." As he and his musicians arrived in Shanghai on their bus from Nanjing, Jiang felt the rustle of jangling nerves and a deep desire to do well.

The concert began, and the musicians did their part, as did Maestro Jiang. According to the conductor, the two Chinese soloists who sang the lyrics captivated the audience. The music rose and receded, swelled and peaked, and finally came to a close in the beautiful hall. As Jiang looked out happily from his conductor's podium, the audience rose to their feet, grinning and banging their hands together proudly. The audience didn't disperse until Maestro Jiang had returned to the stage for bows and applause, not once, but four more times.

Applause like thunder

In the hours and weeks after the premiere, Jiang received much positive feedback about his labor of love. Immediately after the performance, the vice president of the Chinese Musicians Association approached him and, simply and honestly, said, "Thank you for your meaningful job." Members of the International Gustav Mahler Society telephoned to offer congratulations. Three weeks after the show, Jiang read a glowing review of his work in a national musician's newspaper published in Beijing. "My heart beat irregularly," he says of reading the critique. "They gave support. 'Successful,' they said."

The only side he expected to hear from that has yet to offer commentary is the Chinese official news agency. "Some people say this is because the performance didn't make any money for the government and they are not interested," says Jiang. "I think maybe they don't know Mahler, and don't know what to say about it."

But make no mistake — those who know Mahler are aware of the treasure that Jiang now travels with.

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