MSU Faculty Member Garners GRAMMY Nomination-Composer Zhou Tian’s work for “Concerto for Orchestra”
Zhou Tian takes a bow after the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra’s premiere of “Concerto for Orchestra.” Photo by M Berneking, courtesy CSO.
Composer Zhou Tian* of the Michigan State University College of Music says he set out to write a love letter to a symphony orchestra when he was commissioned by the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra (CSO). The resulting “Concerto for Orchestra” penned by the associate professor of composition captured the attention of the Recording Academy and placed Zhou in the running for a GRAMMY in January 2018.
In late November, Zhou heard his work had been nominated to receive the premier recording industry award for Best Contemporary Classical Composition. Zhou's composition was one of three commissioned works on the 2016 CSO album “Concertos for Orchestras”—which also grabbed a GRAMMY nomination in the Best Orchestral Performance under the direction of CSO Conductor and Music Director Louis Langrée.
“I am humbled and extremely honored,” says Zhou. “There were no notifications beforehand, so many friends and colleagues learned about it before I did. I was driving to MSU that morning and my wife called and said many of her colleagues were sending congratulations. My first reaction was ‘No way! Go to Grammy.com and check again.’”
That humbleness is typical of Zhou says Ricardo Lorenz, professor of composition and chair of the MSU Composition Area. Zhou’s humility and grace, Lorenz says, is also what makes Zhou a role model for composition students who aspire to combine sophistication, technical demand and musicality in
their works, and to break into the professional music scene.
“We are extremely proud to have Zhou as our colleague and to have his strengths and achievements complement those of our composition faculty,” says Lorenz. “He is a superb composer who bridges the artistic, the academic, and immensely competitive and savvy world of the music business.”
Zhou joined the MSU Composition Area in Fall 2016 shortly after the CSO premiered “Concerto for Orchestra” for its 2015-16 season finale. Zhou regards the concerto among his most important commissions, and follows a shorter, 15-minute concert opener “Trace” he had composed for the CSO in 2013.
Christopher Pinelo, vice president of communications for the CSO, explains that Zhou's first commission for the CSO came about when the orchestra was in between music directors. At that time, he says, the orchestra engaged creative directors to curate different series.
“Composer Jenifer Higdon was one of those creative directors and for her series, she introduced the CSO to her former student Zhou Tian with a commission,” Pinelo says. “With the success of that piece, Louis Langrée thought it fitting to include him in the ‘Concertos for Orchestra’ project. Zhou’s masterfully constructed piece really showcases the artistry and virtuosity of the CSO.”
Zhou says he was drawn to the possibility of writing a larger, multi-movement work for a leading orchestra. He was also intrigued to write a piece that treated every instrument of a large orchestra as a soloist.
“Instead of having a clear soloist accompanied by the orchestra like a violin concerto, ‘Concerto for Orchestra’ turns the entire orchestra into an army of micro concertos on demand,” Zhou says. “The 35-minute work is comprised of four movements: ‘Glow,’ a voyage to splendidness from two contrasting themes; ‘Indigo,’ a musical postcard from a walk in the forest one late summer night; ‘Seeker’s Scherzo,’ a retro miniature that borrows from the Classical form while adding new turns and twists; and ‘Intermezzo–Allegro,’ a fierce rhapsody prepared by a warm and lyrical fugue.”
Zhou penned the piece over a period of six months, at times pulling 12-plus hours a day. His biggest inspiration, he says, was the symphony orchestra itself—an art form that brings people together to play with passion and unified expression through music.
“There’s nothing quite like it in the world,” he says of a symphony orchestra. “It's all done in real time and without any fancy technology. I wanted to write a piece that honors that great tradition of music making while adding new ideas to the mix that highlight players within a symphony orchestra in an innovative way.”
Music Composition Senior Christian Kolo says Zhou has encouraged him to push himself as a composer, and that Zhou’s creative and adaptive teaching style helped him see new ways to approach music. Without Zhou’s guidance, Kolo says, he wouldn’t feel as prepared for his life beyond graduation in 2018. He also says he is incredibly proud to hear of Zhou’s nomination.
“I am so excited to have the privilege to study with a GRAMMY nominated composer,” Kolo says. “Not only is Professor Zhou a GRAMMY nominee because of his hard work and achievements, he is also a special person because of the attention and commitment he spends on each and every student who walks through his door.”
*Zhou Tian is pronounced JOH TEE-en; Zhou is his last name