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Weijun Chen honors late mentor with beautiful composition

Photo by Ahron Cho

When asked when he discovered a passion for music, Weijun Chen says there never was a magical moment. Instead, it has always been a part of him. Growing up in Shanghai, China, he showed musical talent from a young age. Even in his earliest years, he would sing back any songs that were played on the television or radio with perfect pitch. At only six years old he began playing the piano, and by ten he was writing his own music. By 13, he was formally training as a composer.

Now, over 15 years later, Chen is an internationally sought-after classical composer, with a growing list of critically acclaimed compositions. He has won awards and had his music played at many music festivals, and by orchestras and chamber ensembles across the United States, including the Arditti Quartet, the Aspen Philharmonic Orchestra, the Eastman Wind Ensemble, Ensemble Dal Niente, Ensemble Linea, the Mivos Quartet, the Momenta Quartet, the New York New Music Ensemble, the Slee Sinfonietta, the Spektral Quartet, Talea Ensemble, and The Rhythm Method.

When writing, Chen often draws inspiration from his childhood, which audiences can hear in his new art song collection Three Earlier Songs and in his piece Watercolors. Watercolors for orchestra draws inspiration from the countless hours mixing tube paints in a plastic palette and testing the resultant colors on newspapers he spent as a child. Written in four continuous movements, Watercolors attempts to capture those moments through a musical journey. The opening slow movement, “Dissolve,” is essentially a long chain of suspensions, resembling the moment when paint meets water. Strong lyricism emerges while the texture flourishes, out of which is born the ascending pentatonic motive in “Gradation.” The motive builds its momentum through increasing chromaticism and contrapuntal complexity. The intensity is unleashed in “Radiance,” a fast and active movement full of frenzied runs in a kaleidoscopic texture. The dust settles in “Fade,” an introspective movement in which subtle harmonic and textual variations are applied on a single note. The music not only depicts the fading colors, but also alludes to the fading of childhood memories, a fact that Chen believes we must all accept.

“Out of all the primary musical parameters, I have discovered special connections to harmony and orchestration, which are often associated with musical colors. The word ‘color’ triggered a piece of memory when I was conceiving this project. I remember that I once owned a beginner watercolor kit when I was little as a birthday present from my grandparents. I started to recall my astonishment when the tube paints dissolved into water, and when different combinations of colors created new ones. I even remember when I started to doodle on old newspapers, amazed by transparency. These childhood experiences became the impetus of this project. On a technical level, I aim to use fluid harmonies and orchestrations to relive my childlike curiosity for colors. On an emotional level, the piece alludes to the fading of childhood memories,” said Chen.

During Chen’s writing process, the project received immense support from the musical community. Shortly after the completion of “Dissolve,” Chen was honored to receive opportunities to write the piece at various artist residencies. “Gradation” was written at the Virginia Center for the Creative Arts in Amherst, Virginia. “Fade” was written at the Brush Creek Ranch, supported by the Brush Creek Foundation for the Arts, in Saratoga, Wyoming. Then, a large portion of “Radiance” was written at the Hambidge Center in Rabun Gap, Georgia. The serenity of the Appalachians and the stunning beauty of the Wild West have had a subtle yet profound impact on these movements for Chen.

Watercolors is the culmination of my compositional activities so far. Written for a large ensemble, the work showcases my command in harmonic, orchestration, and formal designs, all of which I have contentiously developed over the years. Therefore, it is gratifying to see how my crafts have matured,” said Chen.

Watercolors premiered at the 2018 “June in Buffalo” music festival by the Slee Sinfonietta, conducted by Matthew Chamberlain. “June in Buffalo” is a renowned festival and conference dedicated to modern classical composers. Chen could not be happier with the piece’s success, but that comes secondary for the composer.

Watercolors is a personal tribute to my beloved mentor, the late American composer Steven Stucky. Steve shared his love for the continuous journey-like musical form with me at multiple occasions. In his program notes of Symphony, one of his last works, Steve wrote: 'a single expanse of music that travels through a series of emotional landscapes, depositing us at the end of our journey in a different place from where we set out. The narrative is a purely musical one, but it is a narrative no less personal, dramatic, or emotional.' Watercolors employs the exact same structure, in the memory of Steve’s colorful music and warm personality,” said Chen.

Chen is currently revising and expanding Watercolors to a larger orchestral work. Stay up-to-date with his work and future plans by going to his website.

Headshot photo by Ahron Cho

Second photo 2018 "June in Buffalo" Festival Premiere of Watercolors for orchestra with Slee Sinfonietta & conductor Matthew Chamberlain

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