Gao Hong, a pipa virtuoso who lives right here in Minnesota, brings a captivatingly energetic playing of the pear-shaped Chinese lute together with several collaborations in her first album devoted to her own compositions – “Quiet Forest, Flowing Stream.” Featuring accompanying musicians from India, Japan, and the United States, the CD is described as a rich and profound journey that explores several autobiographical elements; from the death of friends to the joy of her own daughter’s triumph over leukemia.
Gao Hong composed the CD with Lin Schicheng , and performed with collaborators Biplab Bhattacharya, David Hagedorn, Joseph Schad, Kenny Endo, Michelle Kinney, Nirmala Rajasekar and Shubhendra Rao. The CD Producer was Paul Dice and its Sound Engineer was Matthew Zimmerman.
Gao Hong is an acknowledged virtuoso of the Chinese pipa (pear-shaped lute), touring the world playing major works by Tan Dun, Zhou Long and others. But she is also a composer of distinction, elegantly weaving international styles into a tangy new cosmopolitan chamber music.
The first track, “Butterfly” is composed by Gao Hong, featuring her pipa with carnatic vocalist and veena virtuoso Nirmala Rajasekar. Michelle Kinney also accompanies on cello, and tabla artist Biplab Bhattacharya.
“Just as the butterfly comes into our lives briefly and brings us great joy and pleasure during its short stay on earth, so too do some people,” states Hong in the liner notes. “This piece is dedicated to those who have come into our lives, touched our hearts deeply and brought us much joy and inspiration, but like the butterfly, have left far too soon.”
“Butterfly is a lovely piece which came out of Hong’s desire to find musical expression to the beauty of the Butterfly, but the brevity of the joy it brings to us while it lives its short life,” said Nirmala Rajasejar, veena and vocalist.
Rajasejar said Hong’s composition and arrangement sets the veena and cello in tandem with the pipa for a glorious result. She said the instrumental melody is exuberant and joyful and then closes with a repeat of the vocalization.
“It opens in what in South Indian music is known as raga Shivaranjani with some vocalization that set the haunting, underlying idea and then becomes instrumental with shades of a tune influenced by the color of an 18th century tune from South Indian music that Hong liked very much,” she said. “This is a poignant reminder to me of the short time one has in this world and that of the possibilities of using that time well.”
The second track, “Mother-in-Law Arguing with Daughter-in-Law”, was composed by Lin Shicheng and the pipa solo features Gao Hong. The song tells the story of a mother-in-law arguing with her daughter-in-law with a wide array of entertaining and descriptive sounds coming from the pipa.
The liner notes add that the song was lost for decades and was reconstructed by Gao Hong’s mentor, late pipa master of the Pudong style, Lin Shicheng , who passed it down to Gao Hong on her travels to Hong Kong and Beijing. The recording is dedicated to Lin Shicheng.
The title track blends Chinese and Indian flavors in the form of a pipa-sitar duet where Gao Hong and superstar Shubhendra Rao playfully depict the healing powers of forests and streams. The hauntingly tender voice of Nirmala Rajasekar introduces “Butterfly”, dedicated to those who have brought beauty into our lives but left too soon.
Gao Hong’s passion for preserving her beloved Pudong style of pipa playing is marked by the world premiere recording of the comical “Mother-in-Law Arguing with Daughter-in-Law”, a piece lost for over a century that was recently reconstructed by Gao Hong’s mentor – the late pipa master, Lin Shicheng – and passed on to Gao Hong during her travels to Hong Kong and Beijing.
Gao Hong’s young daughter provided the inspiration for “Courage” thanks to her incredible will to live while undergoing (successful) treatment for leukemia over more than two years. In a similar tale of overcoming, Gao Hong’s own tale of emergence from the Cultural Revolution into a globe-trotting citizen is told in “Flying Dragon Concerto”.
The final track, “Celebration”, unites all the artists (along with taiko hero Kenny Endo) in a festive romp of polyglot vocal percussion; a suitable way to mark the various life journeys and reflect on 35 years of travel shared closely with a beloved instrument.
The third track, “Courage”, was recorded live and composed by Gao Hong, and features her pipa along with David Hagedorn on percussion.
The liner notes add that in April of 2005, Gao Hong’s daughter, Alida, was diagnosed with leukemia. The numerous rare complications with her chemotherapy kept the four-year old girl bedridden, unable to walk and in extreme pain. Longing to sing and dance and play with her friends again, Alida began a rigorous 26-month chemotherapy program and a summer long physical therapy program followed.
Her hard work and the desire to be a “normal girl” again, Alida regained her ability to walk and dance. Alida’s bravery was a great inspiration to her family, and she kept them all going during this difficult time.
Gao Hong’s piece Courage is inspired by Alida’s triumph and her ability to overcome great difficulties and remain positive throughout her trauma. The piece is in three movements, played without pauses.
The fourth track, “Quiet Forest, Flowing Stream,” was composed by Gao Hong, featuring her pipa with the accompaniment of Shubhendra Rao on sitar. It was commissioned by the Jerome Foundation.
Inspired by the serenity of a forest and the excitement and playfulness of a flowing stream, Quiet Forest, Flowing Stream was premiered at the Southern Theater in 2003.
A second version was quickly adapted for Gao Hong’s multicultural group Speaking in Tongues. It is included in the Minnesota Science Museum’s “Wild Music: Sounds and Songs of Life” exhibition that is currently touring the U.S.
A third incarnation of the piece, an arrangement for pipa and piano trio by Gao Hong and her husband, Paul Dice, was premiered by the Bakken Trio at the Southern Theater in 2005.
The fifth track, “Flying Dragon Concerto,” is a live audience recording composed by Gao Hong, and features her pipa accompanied by pianist Joseph Schad. It was commissioned by the Jerome Composers’Commissioning Program of the American Composers Forum.
It is based on Gao Hong’s solo composition, Flying Dragon, the concerto version that premiered in July 2005 with the Minneapolis Pops Orchestra, Jere Lantz conducting. It has since been performed by the Oshkosh Symphony, William LaRue Jones, Conductor, and by the Rochester Symphony with Jere Lantz conducting.
The version featured on this CD is a piano adaptation of the orchestral score interpreted by piano prodigy Joseph Schad.
The sixth track, “Celebration”, is the only other live audience recording and also composed by Gao Hong. It features her pipa and includes Rajasekar, Rao, Kinney, Bhattacharya and Hagedorn. It also features taiko drummer Kenny Endo.
Inspiration for the piece came from Gao Hong’s daughter’s victory over leukemia, her friendships with musicians worldwide that have inspired her greatly, and in reflecting on her 35 years of playing the pipa.
Gao Hong is considered a musical prodigy and began her career as a professional musician at age 12. She graduated with honors from the Beijing Central Conservatory of Music under master Lin Shicheng. Her numerous honors included First Prize in the Hebei Professional Young Music Performers Competition and an International Art Cup in Beijing.
In 2005 Gao Hong became the first traditional musician to be awarded the prestigious Bush Artist Fellowship, and in 2008 she became the only musician in any genre to win three McKnight Artist Fellowships for Performing Musicians.