Conservatory professor places UMKC in the international spotlight
If one word could sum up Zhou Long, perhaps it would be “connected.” The UMKC Conservatory of Music and Dance visiting professor of composition boasts a track record of connecting the East to the West, students to high-profile opportunities and UMKC to the international spotlight.
In “Madame White Snake” — an opera he composed for Opera Boston — Professor Zhou bridges an ancient Chinese story to Western culture. The opera’s western orchestra is complemented by three Chinese melodic instruments: a bamboo flute, clay flute and the erhu, a two-stringed violin. The opera also features traditional Chinese percussion instruments, such as gongs, drums and blocks.
“I feel this is my dream as a composer,” Zhou said of his first opera premiere. “That dream has come to fruition in ‘Madame White Snake.’ This opera, I feel, is the inclusion of all my works in the past — chamber music, vocal pieces, orchestral and choral.”
The most demanding and expensive undertaking in Opera Boston’s history, “Madame White Snake” premiered at Boston’s Cutler Majestic Theatre in late February.
Peter Witte, Dean of the UMKC Conservatory of Music and Dance, attended one of the three sold-out performances to show support.
“Zhou Long makes audiences hear colors, and brilliant ones at that — colors we didn’t even know we could imagine,” Witte said. “Without a doubt, Zhou Long’s presence on UMKC’s faculty extends Kansas City’s reputation internationally.”
In October, “Madame White Snake” will travel to the Beijing Music Festival. In 2011, Zhou said he would like to collaborate with Kansas City Symphony, Lyric Opera of Kansas City and UMKC to show the opera at the Kauffman Center for the Performing Arts.
Zhou’s connection to China runs much deeper than “Madame White Snake,” though.
Born in 1953 to an artistic family in Beijing, Zhou grew up listening to Italian opera arias and taking piano lessons. After turning 16, the leaders of the Cultural Revolution sent him to a state farm in Heilongjiang, a rural province in northeast China. For the next five years, he drove a tractor, grew beans and wheat and carried 200 pounds of produce each day. To improve moral, he taught himself to play revolutionary songs — the only music allowed — on an accordion.
After Zhou injured his back, he was sent to Zhangjiakou — another small city outside Beijing — where he became the conductor and arranger of a Chinese folk song and dance troupe.
Once the Revolution ended, Zhou rushed back to Beijing and applied to Beijing’s Central Conservatory. He was one of 33 students admitted out of 1,000 applicants, and graduated with the now-legendary “Class of 1978” — the first class to be admitted since the end of the Cultural Revolution. At the Beijing Central Conservatory, he also met his future wife, Chen Yi — a composer who now serves as the UMKC Conservatory’s Cravens/Millsap/Missouri Distinguished Professor.
After they both graduated, the two moved to New York to complete graduate studies at Columbia University. At Columbia, he began to combine atonal sounds with the Chinese tonal sounds. Today, he is known for producing music that blends Western and Eastern sounds.
At the UMKC Conservatory, Zhou helps students create connections to the musical world. He gave Ryan Jesperson — a third-year doctoral student in music composition — the opportunity to help transcribe the opera score for “Madame White Snake”.
As Jesperson watched the work develop, he was amazed at Zhou’s ability to create subtle variations using transposition and orchestration. He learned how to add orchestral sounds without overpowering the vocal music, and these lessons helped him refine and enrich his own work.
In June — after working on the opera score for more than a year — Jesperson traveled to Boston to watch a rehearsal of “Madame White Snake”.
“The singers constantly applauded Professor Zhou’s work and would often break into praise in the middle of scenes at the majesty of his work,” Jesperson said. “Professor Zhou is an extremely hard-working composer, and I have strived to imitate his work ethic in my own professional activities. He and Chen Yi are tireless advocates for their students and humble giants of the modern music scene.”