New oratorio from musicians of China, US delivers warmth, light
‘Émigré’ by SSO and NY Phil debuts in Shanghai
Published: Nov 21, 2023 09:30 PM
Musicians perform during the oratorio émigré - a cowork by the Shanghai Symphony Orchestra and the New York Philharmonic - in Shanghai on November 20, 2023. Photo: Courtesy of Shanghai Symphony Orchestra

Musicians perform during the oratorio Émigré - a cowork by the Shanghai Symphony Orchestra and the New York Philharmonic - in Shanghai. Photo: Courtesy of Shanghai Symphony Orchestra

It must be a dream team in the classical music world as some of top musicians from China and the US gathered in Shanghai for a four-year co-commissioned work. The oratorio, Émigré, commissioned by Maestro Long Yu, the Shanghai Symphony Orchestra (SSO) and the New York Philharmonic (NY Phil) made its global premiere in Shanghai on November 17-20. 

As Shanghai sheltered more than 30,000 Jews in 1930s, who fled to escape the Nazis in Europe after Kristallnacht, the new work by award-winning composer Aaron Zigman, with lyrics by Pulitzer Prize winning librettist Mark Campbell and songwriter Brock Walsh, tells the story of two Jewish brothers who arrive in Shanghai as refugees in 1938 and go on to navigate their new life and seek a home and community there.

"Focusing on the great kindness and tolerance shown by Shanghai in a tragic moment for all of mankind, the concert once again interprets the profound meaning and value of a community with shared future with the brilliance of humanity," conductor Yu told the Global Times after the premiere on Friday. 

Sung in English with minimal visual and production elements, soloists Matthew White, Arnold Livingston Geis, Zhu Huiling, Zhang Meigui, Shen Yang, Diana Newman and Andrew Dwan not only narrated a story about love and warmth, but also bridged the two peoples of China and the US through music. 

From the inception of the idea to its world premiere, the new production was carefully crafted over four years. In the end, "musicians of different races and beliefs gathered in Shanghai to collaborate on the stage, and the piece will be performed by other orchestras in years to come, further conveying this message of love and hope to the world. This is the power of art," added Yu, who will also conduct the NY Phil for the US premiere in February 2024 in New York City. 

Music transcends all barriers. In a world full of chaos and turmoil, "music has the power to bind humanity, creating a bridge between all of us and reminding us that we are all one people," composer Aaron Zigman said. 

For the audiences sitting under the stage, it is not just about the historical stories, but about people who are all living on the planet. 

Lyrics such as "the house we share" and "through the window," reflect "empathy, compassion, and kindness in human nature that transcend nationality, culture and belief. In that chaotic world, temporary darkness cannot cover people's yearning for a bright world and the future," an audience member surnamed Wu told the Global Times.

The co-commissioned production is the second shared piece by NY Phil and the SSO, following their very first one, One Sweet Morning, in 2012. The piece by US composer John Corigliano quoted Tang Dynasty (618-907) poet Li Bai's War South of the Wall, which once again confirms the recognition and appeal of the spiritual value of traditional Chinese poetry on the international stage.

For Julie Kim, the vice president of production for the NY Phil, US musicians "have been enjoying working with not only the SSO, but also with the academy students, playing side by side and making music together."

The two orchestras from the US and China have built a friendship that has taken "deep root over 10 years," from co-commissioning music productions to jointly training talents and on to performing various concerts across the two countries, as music connects the world.