ListN Up: Tianhui Ng (May 4, 2023)

ListN Up is a series of artist-curated playlists that offer an intimate sonic portrait of contemporary artists by showcasing the diverse and stylistically varied music that influences their creative practice.

Described by the Boston Globe as a conductor who clears “a path through the thicket,” of new music, Tianhui Ng is a conductor from Singapore now based in western Massachusetts. His practice is rooted in the canon of European and American music, even as he has embarked on music from multiple cultures, languages, and mediums. In just the past month, Ng has been Artist in Residence with his ensemble, the Victory Players, at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign, featuring music about Puerto Rico; premiered an opera in Yoruba by Olabode Omojola; launched Fractured Mosaics, a new composite transmedia opera with White Snake Projects, blending Kabuki, rap, Khmer singing and jazz; and had a nostalgic concert with the Springfield Symphony Orchestra, featuring Rachmaninoff’s Piano Concerto No. 2 and Elgar’s Enigma Variations.

Hi everyone. My name is Tianhui Ng. I’m a conductor living in Holyoke, Mass., where I am the music director of the new music ensemble the Victory Players and the Pioneer Valley Symphony. In Boston, I am the music director of White Snake Projects and the New England Philharmonic. The past few years have been an extraordinary time of music-making for me. The pandemic offered me the opportunity to really dig into the music written for my ensembles and to nurture our relationship with the musicians who wrote with us in mind.

The playlist below is a personal smorgasbord of the adventures we had together and some of our points of departure. I hope you enjoy discovering the music of these wonderful human beings, even as I know I have been transformed by the worlds of possibilities that they have opened up for me. Happy listening!

“Belén: Un Canto Sagrado a Mis Ancestros” (A Sacred Chant to My Ancestors) by Johanny Navarro, performed by the Victory Players

The first time we played Johanny’s Belen, I felt as if we had entered a trance, lost in the suspended beauty of the flute, ready to be transported into a forgotten world and to take flight in dance. “The rhythms of the bomba, Puerto Rico’s traditional dance music, are the underpinnings of Johanny Navarro’s work,” wrote WCRB. “These rhythms are rooted in the African and indigenous heritage of the Caribbean. Much like a translator moves ideas from one language to another, Navarro reworks the rhythms and sounds of the bomba for the Victory Players, honoring the past and exploring new musical possibilities.”

“Soul of Remembrance” by Mary D. Watkins, performed by the New Black Music Repertory Ensemble and Leslie B. Dunner

I have now spent the last 10 years of my life working on the music of this remarkable woman. I remember talking to my colleague Brianna J. Robinson about the unique voice of this woman’s music. In this piece, I feel the heartfelt authenticity of her writing and how it so often belies a depth of sorrow, a generosity of forgiveness, and an understanding of the tragic past. Hear more here.

“Prints of Lost Breath” by J.J. Pena Aguayo, performed by the Victory Players and Tianhui Ng

The #blacklivesmatter transformed my relationship with the world around me in previously unimaginable ways. Coupled with the events that gave rise to the #stopAAPIHate movement, it was a deeply personal moment of reckoning as I confronted the implications of my racial identity. My work with my Black colleagues over the past decade and a half has taught me so much. And the way in which the Black community in Puerto Rico protested (referenced in this piece) deeply inspired me to draw on my roots as an artist and musician. Read more here.

“Point of Entry” by Liliya Ugay, performed by Norfolk Chamber Music Festival choir and ensemble, and Simon Carrington

I was there at the premiere of this piece at the Norfolk Festival in Connecticut. I was so struck by Liliya’s distinctive musical voice and, in this piece, the personal and moving depiction of pregnancy — surely one of the more difficult things to depict in music! The piece has now led to several collaborations, and I look forward to many more in the future.

“Nadie puede dar lo que no lo tiene” (No One Can Give What They Do Not Have) by Armando Bayolo, performed by the Victory Players and Tianhui Ng

I know that this was absolutely not what Armando had in mind when he was writing this piece, but this piece came in the middle of the pandemic. And between the trials of remote work, #blacklivesmatter, #stopaapihate and the emotions of the time, I felt the title of this piece in a very dark place in my own heart. As we all struggled with the almost inhuman requirements of precision at the start of this piece and the way in which it unforgivingly exposes the slightest inaccuracy in our playing, I felt, if for a brief moment, seen in my struggles to be. That I — we — cannot give what we do not have to give. Read more here.

“Para observar los cielos (To observe the heavens)” by Carlos Carillo, performed by the Victory Players

Carlos has become one of my dearest friends in these recent years of intense musicking. I greatly admire his pursuit of unique vantages in harmony, sonority, and color. This piece, itself about transformation even as it looks out at the stars, inspires me to look at the sky and dream of what lies beyond our sight. Read more here, and here.

“Canción Exaltada” (Exalted song) by Tony Solitro, performed by the Victory Players and Tianhui Ng

I first fell in love with Tony’s music when I got to perform his opera Triangle with the Boston Opera Collaborative and the Boston New Music Initiative. I love his wit, musical vivacity, and gift for yummy-licious melodies. “What can one single voice do amid all the noise of the world? That is a question central to Tony Solitro’s Canción Exaltada,” wrote WCRB. “Drawing heavy inspiration from the Puerto Rican poet and activist Julia de Burgos, Solitro creates a musical narrative about finding your voice. Instruments play song-like melodies, soaring above a churning rhythmic undercurrent.”

“Transmutación Inerte” (Inert transmutation) by Iván Rodriguez, performed by the Victory Players and Tianhui Ng

Performing this piece after we had been sequestered in different corners of the country throughout the pandemic was one of the most worrying/exciting things about our session at the legendary Fraser Performance Studio at WGBH in Boston. Intricate rhythms, fantastic counterpoint, heartache, and concerto all in one. Simply exhilarating! “What happens when a new place becomes your home? When Iván Enrique Rodriguez moved from Puerto Rico to the mainland US, he realized that his sense of “Puerto Rican-ness” slowly shifted,” wrote WCRB. “But rather than mourning the loss of a Puerto Rican identity, he realized that it was simply a change in form, a new way of feeling Puerto Rican. That transformation, and the questions about identity and belonging that it brings up, formed the basis of Transmutación Inerte.”

“Concerto for Piano and Orchestra, Op. 61, fourth movement” by Thomas de Hartmann, performed by the Lviv National Philharmonic Orchestra of Ukraine, Elan Sicroff, and Tianhui Ng

This is the stuff of the movies! After one of my concerts, I was approached by members of the Thomas de Hartmann project with this music that had lain unperformed for decades. I was astonished by the quality of the music they had brought to me in facsimile. The music lives between Rachmaninoff and Stravinsky for me — two of my favorite composers — and I was asked if I would give it its re-premiere and share it with the world. Saying “yes” meant recording in Lviv, Ukraine, three years later, even as troops encircled the country, editing during the Winter Olympics in anticipation of an impending attack, with the master files sent to us from a subway in Kyiv as bombs fell above. I have always dreamt of being part of a project to resuscitate music and help bring it to the attention of the world, I just never imagined that I would meet all these friends and colleagues that even now live in one of the biggest conflicts of my life. I pray for an end to this needless suffering. Read more here.

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