A year ago at this time, Susan McMane, Artistic Director of the San Francisco Girls Chorus, had no idea what a hot-button issue immigration would be in June 2010. For her, the works of immigrant composers formed a compelling programmatic mix for her five-time Grammy-winning ensemble’s concert series, which she’d entitled A New Land, A New Song.
Now, in the midst of nonstop political debate and a deployment of additional National Guard troops to the border, SFGC will celebrate the contributions of immigrant composers to the choral music oeuvre. Composers come literally from all over the map, from Russia with Igor Stravinksy and his Four Russian Peasant Songs, from Cuba with Tania Léon and her work May the Road Be Free; and Austria with Ernst Krenek’s Three Madrigals. The Cypress String Quartet, SFGC’s 2010 Artists in Residence, will contribute Dvorak’s String Quartet No. 12 in F Major, Op.96, “American”. Choral pieces by Kurt Weill, Vernon Duke, and colonial Moravian composers are also on the bill.
But the centerpiece of the series will be a world premiere, commissioned by the Chorus from Chinese-born Chen Yi. The new work, Angel Island Passages, commemorates the 100th anniversary of Angel Island Immigration Station, known as “the Ellis Island of the West,” and evokes the experiences of Chinese immigrants. Artistic Director McMane came up with the idea for the work in 2009, and sent the book “Island, poetry and history of Chinese Immigrants on Angel Island, 1910-1940” — by Him Mark Lai, Genny Lim, and Judy Yung — to Dr. Chen for her reference as she began work on the commission.
The piece is written in three movements for treble voices and string quartet. The first movement, entitled “1882,” refers to the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882 passed by Congress to halt Chinese immigration into the United States. The music is based on a Cantonese folk ensemble piece, “Prancing Horses”, and contains a traditional scale in a sorrowful mode. Dr. Chen expands and develops the melody, and uses it horizontally and vertically throughout the movement. The second movement, “Longing,” continues in a slow, agitated and melancholy mood. The third movement contrasts small groups with the larger ensemble to symbolize the experience of assimilation into American culture. The text of the three movements includes nonsense syllables to convey emotional pain, and the words “We are America” sung in Cantonese, Mandarin and English.
Dr. Chen has already written for the San Francisco Girls Chorus – her piece, Chinese Poems, received its world premiere as part of the Chorus’ 20th anniversary season in 1998. Twelve years later, she says, “My experience writing…for the San Francisco Girls Chorus in 1998 convinced me that it is a world-class performing arts organization whose singers can handle any repertoire. I am confident that these young women have what it takes to bring this powerful subject matter to life.”
Angel Island Passages may officially be a piece for treble chorus and string quartet, but a compelling visual accompaniment, commissioned by the Chorus from documentary filmmaker Felicia Lowe, will be integral. Ms. Lowe’s past films include Carved in Silence, a documentary about the experience of detainees on Angel Island; and Chinatown, a short film about the history of the Chinese in San Francisco. She shared both films, along with her video production Road to Restoration, with Dr. Chen as Angel Island Passages was being written.
Dr. Chen relates the experience of the Angel Island immigrants to her own personal history. “I was born and raised in China and went through the dark period of Cultural Revolution 40 years ago, during which general education was interrupted and Western music was prohibited for 10 years,” she says. “My passion and hard work helped me overcome this hardship and to become the first woman to earn a masters degree in music composition in China. I’ve painfully learned about the history of Chinese immigration through Angel Island. Along with SFGC and Cypress String Quartet, I want us to use our music to share the true history, to voice our belief in equal rights, to improve our society, and to look forward to a brighter future.”
Performances of A New Land, A New Song will take place at 8:00 p.m. on June 4th and 5th at the San Francisco Conservatory of Music, located at 50 Oak Street, San Francisco. Tickets are priced $18-$32 and are available for purchase by phone from City Box Office, by phone at 415-392-4400 and online at www.cityboxoffice.com.