Original article published on Sharps & Flatirons here.
Is our cultural identity more of a mosaic or a melting pot?
With a cultural mosaic, individuals retain their distinct ethnic identities, while coexisting as a greater whole. With a melting pot, ethnic identities mix together, assimilating to create a singular culture.
In “Exploring Cultural Identities,” three CU Boulder professors, pianist Alexandra Nguyen, violinist Claude Sim and cellist David Requiro, will tackle this dichotomy of cultural representation versus assimilation by exploring Asian and Slavic cultural identities in classical music. The program will include compositions by Zoltan Kodaly from Hungary, Alexina Louie from Canada and Antonín Dvořák from Bohemia (present-day Czech Republic).
“Exploring Cultural Identities” will be streamed on CU Presents at 7:30 p.m. on Tuesday, March 9, as part of CU Boulder’s Faculty Tuesday concert series.
“Presenting music through the lens of cultural identity is a fascinating exploration,” Sim says. “I believe that we truly play as we are. In other words, our artistry is a result of our diverse backgrounds, heritage and upbringing.”
Nguyen curated the program for “Exploring Cultural Identities” to pay tribute to her diverse heritage, later choosing her collaborators Sim and Requiro. As a Vietnamese Canadian, Nguyen often doesn’t see her identity reflected in the music she plays.
“As an Asian woman, I am playing music by dead white men a majority of the time,” Nguyen says. “How can I relate to this music?”
To represent her own cultural identity, Nguyen has decided to champion Asian composers, particularly Louie, a Chinese Canadian. She feels very connected to Louie, who shares her Asian-Canadian heritage.
“In Canada, your heritage is a substantial part of your identity,” Nguyen says. “But in the U.S., the approach is very different. You want to blend in. No one wants to be the ‘other’.”
Nguyen will be playing Louie’s most famous work for solo piano, Scenes from a Jade Terrace, written in 1988, as the second piece on the program. The suite is filled with references to Chinese culture and folklore, while the harmonic language is colorful and complex, similar to contemporary composers George Crumb and Olivier Messiaen.
Overall, the suite is aggressive in its texture and timbre. The first movement, “Warrior,” depicts the ghost of an ancient warrior and combines aggressive virtuosity with vulnerability. The second movement, ”Memories in an Ancient Garden,” feels eerily peaceful. Louie’s written direction on the score reflects this poetic, dreamy feeling, as she tells the performer “to play as if intoxicated by the scent of a thousand blossoms.” In the final movement, “Southern Sky,” the music depicts a dynamic starry night, as fast notes explode from the piano with sudden dynamic changes and intense dissonances.
To complement Louie’s suite, Nguyen wanted to pivot toward exploring cultural identity through a European lens. She decided to program chamber music written by two Slavic composers, Kodaly and Dvořák, and to explore the role of Slavic nationalism in 19th and 20th century classical music. “Kodaly and Dvořák are two composers who felt strongly about their cultural identity and national heritage and (wanted to) reflect it in their music,” Nguyen says.
The program will begin with Nguyen and Requiro performing Kodaly’s Sonata for Cello and Piano, Op. 4, which incorporates harmonies and dance forms from Hungarian folk music. To finish the concert, Requiro and Sim join Nguyen for Dvořák’s Piano Trio No. 4, Op. 90, nicknamed the “Dumky.” The trio uses elements of Bohemian folk music. The six-movement work is a “dumka,” a form used by Slavic composers to indicate a brooding, contemplative lament interspersed with cheerful, rhythmic, dance-like moments.
For her next Faculty Tuesday concert, Nguyen aims to go even further with her exploration of cultural identities with an all-Asian program with Asian performers. She wants to represent distinct cultural mosaics in CU Boulder’s concert hall, as her personal contribution to more diversity and inclusivity in classical music.
“If we want to represent all voices, then we have to perform all those voices,” Nguyen says. “If we want to respect all voices, then we have to hear them all.”
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“Exploring Cultural Identities”
Alexandra Nguyen, piano; Claude Sim, violin; and David Requiro, cello
Zoltan Kodaly: Sonata for Cello and Piano, Op. 4
Alexina Louie: Scenes from a Jade Terrace
Dvořák: Piano Trio No. 4, Op. 90 (“Dumky Trio”)