Concert Preview: Wang Lu's "Code Switch" (Chicago Tribune)

October 1, 2019

When the Chicago Symphony Orchestra’s MusicNOW series launches its 22nd season on Oct. 7, the ensemble’s fabled brass musicians will step into spotlight.

But not precisely in the way listeners might expect.

For the world premiere of Chicago composer Wang Lu’s “Code Switch” will trumpet an unorthodox approach to music for brass.

“When I was thinking about writing this opening piece to showcase brass players primarily from the CSO, Missy said: ‘What about a fanfare?’” recalls Wang Lu, referring to Missy Mazzoli, the CSO composer-in-residence who curates MusicNOW.

“And I thought: If people know the tradition of fanfares, they might know things like Copland,” adds Wang Lu, referring to Aaron Copland’s celebrated “Fanfare for the Common Man.”

“But people from different cultures might think of a military march. (Or) the use of brass could be easily associated with Chinese brass instruments that I’m familiar with.

“So I thought maybe this could be a piece that is not a collage but a hybrid of multi-cultural references through the sound world.”

Wang Lu, in other words, wanted to do anything but write a fanfare that confirmed – rather than confronted – listener expectations.

Or, as she puts it, “I’d rather write something that they feel challenges them, or (makes listeners think) ‘she doesn’t know what she’s doing’ than something that’s pretty much pleasing. What is the point?”

That Wang Lu decided to weave the sounds of various cultures into “Code Switch” will come as no surprise to those familiar with her genre-stretching work. Bent and sliding pitches, other worldly textures and novel sonorities have been central to her musical vocabularies, elements of East and West intermingling in compelling ways.

This singular language has earned her a slew of awards and honors, including a 2019 Berlin Prize Fellowship in composition at the American Academy in Berlin, a 2014 Guggenheim Fellowship and first prize at the Le Nouvel Ensemble Moderne’s Young Composers Forum in 2010. Her work has been performed around the world by Ensemble Intercontemporain, International Contemporary Ensemble (ICE), the Minnesota Orchestra, American Composers Orchestra, Shanghai National Chinese Orchestra, Columbia University Jazz Band and others.

“I find Wang Lu’s music delightfully eclectic and highly original,” says composer Mazzoli in an email. “Each piece feels like a collage-like dream with its own unique logic. … I wanted to open the 19/20 MusicNOW season with a fanfare by Wang Lu because I was curious as to what she would write for these particular instruments, and I wanted the CSO to celebrate the work of this very important artist.”

Wang Lu’s cross-cultural approach originated in her youth. Born in Xi’an, which she calls “the ancient capital of China” in her bio, she grew up immersed in multiple musical traditions.

“I started piano practice since I was 5 – may dad was a Beijing Opera professional,” explains Wang Lu. “He was trained during the Cultural Revolution not only in traditional opera but also those propaganda-model operas.

“So I think it’s a subtle influence of multiple layers of things in my upbringing. Also there was (music in) the parks every day. Local Beijing opera. My grandmother, she would call in and sing to the radio through the phone. … We don’t have those clear boundaries” that separate genres in the West.

After graduating from the Beijing Central Conservatory of Music with the highest honors in 2005, she came to New York to study at Columbia University at age 23, completing her doctoral degree there in 2012. Her teachers included MacArthur Fellowship winner and former Chicagoan George Lewis, a key figure in and chronicler of the Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians (AACM).

Wang Lu and her husband, composer Anthony Cheung, moved here in 2013, when he joined the music faculty at the University of Chicago.

She’d never been to a city quite like this, its distinctive topography influencing the way she thought about music.

“Chicago is so flat … it affects me,” says Wang Lu. “It’s really flat and windy. I would take these long walks … listen to music and try to just often times not do anything. That contributes a lot to what I do with composition: You write very little, but you find time and space just to live. I find that doing nothing is quite productive.”

Not that she’s doing nothing. In 2015 she became an assistant professor of music at Brown University in Providence, R.I., which meant she and Cheung began a commuting life. As for how their one-year old baby will affect this arrangement, “I don’t know,” she says.

Regarding “Code Switch” – which is scored for one French horn, two trumpets (one doubling on piccolo trumpet), one trombone and percussion – the composer says its very name signals its intent.

“It’s a linguistic term,” says Wang Lu. “We speak bilingual at home – we often switch between English and Chinese in the middle of a sentence. It’s only one kind of code-switching.

“It’s part of the piece – not only switching language, but the untranslatability of meaning between cultures.”

Those concepts underlie the piece and hint at how Wang Lu composes: by starting with a concept before she writes or plays a note at the piano.

“If you have a message, then you try to find the technique to achieve the message,” says the composer. “If you don’t have the technique, you can still learn and search.

“But if you don’t have a message, whatever you do will not have enough.”

And what kind of music has the message of “Code Switch” produced? How will the new piece sound?

“Every time it’s a surprise,” says Wang Lu of the first time she hears one of her compositions performed.

“Some composers know exactly how (a new work) is going to sound. Every time when I hear, I’m just like in shock.

“Because the piece lives in your head. Then it travels."

Its journey begins shortly.

The world premiere of Wang Lu’s “Code Switch” will be featured on a MusicNOW program including the world premiere of an arrangement for chamber ensemble of LJ White’s “Community Acoustics,” plus CSO principal percussion Cynthia Yeh performing Francesca Verunelli’s “Magic Mauve.” Also on the program: Eliza Brown’s “Figure to Ground” for string trio and Finola Merivale’s “The Language of Mountains is Rain” for string quartet. The program, featuring musicians from the Chicago Symphony Orchestra conducted by Michael Lewanski, begins at 7 p.m. Oct. 7 at the Harris Theater for Music and Dance, 205 E. Randolph St.; $28 general admission; $15 students with valid ID; 800-223-7114 or 312-294-3000 or