World Premiere of Rita Ueda's "Birds Calling… from the Canada in You"
As the 2022 laureate of the Azrieli Commission for Canadian Music, Ueda's new work was premiered at the Azrieli Music Prizes Gala Concert
The 2022 Azrieli Music Prizes (AMP) Gala Concert, in Montréal, Canada, recently featured the world premiere performances by the 2022 AMP laureates, Iman Habibi, Aharon Harlap, and Rita Ueda.
Established in 2014, the competition is comprised of three categories: The Azrieli Prize for Jewish Music, The Azrieli Commission for Jewish Music, and The Azrieli Commission for Canadian Music.
The prize for each of the three categories includes $50,000 CAD, an AMP Gala performance of the work, and a recording on the Analekta label.
The Azrieli Commission for Canadian Music went to Rita Ueda, for her "Birds Calling… from the Canada in You" for shō, suona/sheng, and orchestra. The performers featured were the Orchestre Métropolitain, conductor Alexandre Bloch, shō player Naomi Sato, and suona/sheng player Zhongxi Wu.
The Violin Channel had a chance to learn more about the work from the composer herself...
What was your idea or inspiration behind the work?
I was tasked in my commission to answer the question, ‘What is Canadian music?’. At first, I had meant to create a celebration of Canadian multiculturalism by composing a 25-minute work based on Canadian bird calls. This led me on an incredible year-long journey of discovery about Canada.
Other than a handful of beautiful songbirds (white throated sparrows, loons, blue jays, cardinals, etc.), many of the most iconic birds of Canada (hummingbirds, Canada geese, arctic cranes, puffins, snowy owls, etc.) are not songbirds. They generally screech, grunt, and shriek
). Yet they are much loved by us Canadians. I thought this parallels the way Canadians take in immigrants from all over the world, regardless of where they come from.
I included three solo instruments. The sho (Japanese mouth organ), performed by Naomi Sato for the world premiere this past October, represents my Japanese Canadian heritage. The sheng (Chinese mouth organ) and suona (Chinese shawm), both performed by Zhongxi Wu, represents the Chinese Canadian community. It was important to utilize these instruments along with the orchestra to create an intercultural and inclusive work that reflects today’s multicultural Canadian society.
Many things happened in the news this past year that shook my idea of where we are going as Canadians. Canada has been good to me and my family, but I got to a point where I could not create a straight-forward celebratory fanfare.
Instead, I decided to create an immersive 3D representation of the Canadian bird soundscape (with bird calls spinning in the air above) that invites the audience to contemplate where we are going as a society.
Why did you decide to apply to the Azrieli composition competition?
I saw an ad in the Canadian Music Centre (BC) newsletter, and I was intrigued at the prospect of composing a large-scale orchestral work.
What was your compositional process? How do you take a piece from an idea in your mind, to a full-fledged score?
I began with the architectural plan of La Maison Symphonique in Montréal where the premiere was to take place. I placed all wind players ‘in the round’ over the 3 balcony levels. The conductor, Alexandre Bloch, had to conduct the soloists and the string players on the stage plus all the individual wind players all around him. I was so happy to hear the bird calls swirling around from above. It really sounded like a forest!
It would have been culturally insensitive of me to compose for the sho, sheng, and suona in Western notation. I had to invent a new hybrid notation that incorporates their performance practice. I also wanted to avoid making the soloists play in Western time signature. This meant that the members of the Orchestre Métropolitain had to exercise enormous flexibility of time, virtuosity, and imagination. The orchestra performed with so much enthusiasm and love for their craft. Many of the players personally spoke to me and encouraged me or offered me practical advice. I was truly moved and inspired.
What do you hope listeners will take away with them upon listening to the piece?
My wish is to have the listeners spend the duration of my piece as an opportunity to think about where Canadians are going in the future. I do not expect them to agree with me. They do not even have to like or enjoy what they hear. I hope my music provides a way for the listeners to explore how they feel about Canada.
How did it feel hearing your work performed at the Azrieli Gala in October?
I was intensely nervous coming into the rehearsals before the gala. Through my score, I had asked the soloists and the orchestra to go way out of their comfort zone and to trust my artistic vision. It was a pleasure to work with Naomi Sato, Zhongxi Wu, everyone at Orchestre Métropolitain as well as the Azrieli Foundation.
There were so many unforgettable moments: the sheng vs. sho procession, the orchestral bird soundscape, the crash cymbal vs. suona duo, the gagaku-style ‘O Canada’ on the sho, and many more. So many people in the audience had tears in their eyes, and the rousing standing ovation was a transformational experience.
The past year working with the Azrieli Music Prize and the gala concert was truly life changing. I was challenged and encouraged to compose at a new level of artistic freedom and inspiration. I will take this experience with me for the rest of my life.