The Angel Island Project officially launched when Huang Ruo and the Del Sol Quartet received one of the Hewlett Foundation’s 50 Arts Commissions in addition to awards from the Wattis and Heller Foundations.
Del Sol comprises violinists Samuel Weiser and Benjamin Kreith, violist Charlton Lee, and cellist Kathryn Bates. They first collaborated with Ruo in 2014 in conjunction with a performance of Ruo’s opera “Dr. Sun Yat-sen” — the first major Western opera to be sung in Chinese.
Of that opera, Del Sol violist and artistic director Charlton Lee told us that they became “especially impressed by Ruo’s melodic treatment of the words.” Later, they began to think of ways to amplify other Chinese voices.
Ruo's subsequent work, entitled “Angel Island: Oratorio for Voices and String Quartet,” is based on poems inscribed on the walls of San Francisco's Angel Island Immigration Station by detained Chinese immigrants. During the 30 years the station was active in the early to mid 1900s, many young individuals and families were held back on the island, often under harsh conditions. There are over 220 poems composed in a classical Chinese poetic style, expressing homesickness, ancestral folklore, unfulfilled dreams, and hope.
"Angel Island" follows an immigrant's journey through three large choral settings sung in Mandarin — The Seascape, When We Bade Farewell, and Buried Beneath Clay and Earth. The Violin Channel had the privilege of getting more information on the piece and Ruo's inspirations.
Previewed at the annual China Now Music Festival, "Asian American Voices," presented by the US-China Music Institute of the Bard College Conservatory of Music, the work's world premiere dates are Friday, October 22, 2021 at the Presidio Theatre in San Francisco and Saturday, October 23rd on Angel Island itself.
“We hope to bring more light to the stories that have always been there, but remain hidden from view,” Charlton Lee said. “So many Bay Area people have never been to the island and we wish to bring its history and incredible artistic richness into mainstream consciousness.”
“The Angel Island Oratorio lifts up performers and listeners alike with achingly beautiful music as it commemorates and humanizes the very difficult circumstances Chinese immigrants endured in their efforts to get to America,” Volti’s artistic director, Robert Geary told The Violin Channel.
“Overlaid on heart-opening harmony, Huang Ruo uses ravishing melodies with Chinese ornamentation, pentatonic elements, and references to Chinese Opera,” Geary continued. “It has been a great and meaningful pleasure to learn and prepare this work.”
When Ruo visited Angel Island for the first time, he was stunned by the power of the inscribed poems. “I am an immigrant myself,” he told us. “The experience of being in the Island brought the tragic history of the Chinese Exclusion Act to life and into the context of immigration issues we are still dealing with now,” he said.
“This project has revealed so many connected stories for us and also built so many wonderful relationships,” said Bates. “One amazing example is when our community coordinator, Andi Wong, discovered that one of our Angel Island liaisons, Grant Din, was her distant relative via immigrants who came through Angel Island!”
An excerpt of the oratorio played by the Del Sol Quartet and Volti Vocal Ensemble in preparation for the premiere, can be heard below.