The Philharmonic Takes on a Composer of Puzzles and Turns

The composer Unsuk Chin has long been known for the dramatic quality of her music — even before her first opera, a 2007 adaptation of “Alice in Wonderland.” Three years before that, when her Violin Concerto won the prestigious Grawemeyer Award for Music Composition, the jury commended her not just for her orchestration and sonorities, but also for her “volatility of expression, musical puzzles and unexpected turns.”

This Korean-born composer’s gripping and delightful pieces have been conducted by Simon Rattle and Gustavo Dudamel. This week, at the New York Philharmonic, Susanna Malkki — another champion of Ms. Chin’s work — will present the New York premiere of “Su,” a concerto for sheng, an ancient Chinese mouth organ. The solo part will be played by Wu Wei, who premiered the work in 2009.

When a recording of “Su” was released in 2014, I became an instant convert to Ms. Chin’s way of balancing riotous ruptures with more smoothly blended colors. As the Philharmonic prepared for this week’s premiere, she spoke by telephone and email about the place “Su” occupies in her catalog. Here are edited excerpts.

How long did you spend getting to know the sheng before writing the concerto?

The sheng — or, to be more exact, its Korean counterpart, the saenghwang — is an instrument that has intrigued me since my childhood. But “Su” absolutely couldn’t have been written before I met Wu Wei. He is a pioneer par excellence, not only because of his expertise in the most different musical styles, but also because he has radically modernized the instrument’s technical properties, and continues to do so all the time. At present, he is the only person who can play this piece at all.

The first time I heard “Su,” I didn’t know the sheng. When the solo part started to involve brittle, edgy sounds, I thought perhaps you were using electronic modification. But the liner notes confirmed it was acoustic.

Yes, the tonal versatility and variety of the sheng is a source of marvel for me. I spent lots of time coming to grips with this very complex instrument. But the actual writing of the piece took relatively little time, curiously much less than the work on one of my piano études.

This piece, as well as others from the same period, like “Rocana,” sound like you are leaving behind some of the influence of the 20th-century European avant-garde.

That’s right. In my younger years, up to 40, I was very interested in the musical language of [the influential modernist German music institute] Darmstadt’s avant-garde. But as a composer, you get a little bit older — and perhaps a little bit wiser. So you are searching for new possibilities.

I was thinking for a long time, how can I create a music that can communicate to more people? Darmstadt: There are not many people who understand that kind of music. And I always thought it was not completely my music. This was also what [her teacher, the great Hungarian composer Gyorgy] Ligeti told me, a long time ago. But at that time I couldn’t understand it.

What was the turning point?

It started with the Violin Concerto, which is quite different from all my work before. And “Su” was a kind of turning point, because it was the first work I wrote — the first and the only, until now — featuring a non-European instrument. But the possibility to make harmonies is what interested me. The fact that the sheng is an Asian instrument, it didn’t play any role for me.

The central idea of “Su” was to create variations, since the sheng is suited to every instrumental group in the orchestra. The different orchestral groups mirror everything that the soloist offers, as magnified shengs. The orchestra on the whole acts as an even larger sheng and duels with the soloist; finally, the sheng and the full orchestra create a sonic unity by acting as a “hyper-sheng” of a kind.

What should audiences listen for in a first hearing?

It’s very important not to try to hear any direct melody. There is just harmony. But this harmony is creating a kind of indirect melody. It’s quite abstract for many people, but there is a kind of floating structure. It tells a story, through this harmony, an emotional story.

Has the concerto had an impact on your working process?

My perspective has become much wider. I’m more interested in involving influences from different cultures into my music. Nowadays, I’m much more interested in Korean music. The working process with Wu Wei and the sheng opened up a completely new world. So therefore the piece is, for me, very important.

Are you going to return to opera?

Yes, now I’m planning my second opera. It will come to Hamburg, Germany, in 2024.

Has the subject matter been announced?

[Laughs] It’s still secret.


Oct. 18, 19 and 22 at David Geffen Hall, Lincoln Center; 212-875-5656,

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