Taiwanese composer's score debuts at USF

The USF Symphony Orchestra will perform a professor's audience-friendly work that builds on a Chinese folk tune.

By John Fleming, Times performing arts critic
Published November 29, 2007


USF Symphony Orchestra

The orchestra performs Chihchun Chi-sun Lee's Ni-Shang Qu and other works at 4 p.m. Sunday at Theatre 1 on the Tampa campus. $6, $12. (813) 974-2323.


TAMPA - When Chihchun Chi-sun Lee was studying for her doctorate in composition at the University of Michigan, she had a sign above her desk at the dorm.

"The first line on the sign said, 'No dating,' " said Lee, who came to the United States for graduate school from her native Taiwan. "And the second line said, 'Especially composers!' "

So naturally Lee dated a fellow grad student in composing, Michael Timpson, and they eventually got married. She wrote the music to their wedding march.

Today, Lee and her husband both teach composition at the University of South Florida. For a composer, being married to another composer can make life easier.

"It's a little bit like having a religion," Timpson said. "There are just things I don't have to explain to her."

But with two little girls, ages 5 and 1, finding the time and focus for composing can be hard. "I basically have to get up at 4 or 4:30 every morning," Lee said.

Lee, 37, has a new work, Ni-Shang Qu, that will receive its U.S. premiere Sunday in a concert by the USF Symphony Orchestra. Monday morning, she listened as the student musicians and conductor William Wiedrich rehearsed the 10-minute piece.

Subtitled "Cinematic Fantasy," the score was commissioned by the chief conductor of the National Film Symphony Orchestra in Beijing and finished in 2005. It is built around a Chinese folk tune and features a prominent harp part, which will be played Sunday by a talented 16-year-old, Alexis Spieldenner.

"It's very pentatonic," said Wiedrich, describing Lee's piece with reference to the five-tone scale associated with exotic music from China and other Asian cultures.

"I always equate Chihchun's pieces to visual art. One of the things she does really well is tone-paint with what I think of as watercolor brushes. It's very delicate and transparent."

Wiedrich will pull double duty Sunday with two concerts to conduct. At 11 in the morning, he will be on the podium for the Patel Conservatory Youth Orchestra's program, which includes Shostakovich's Fifth Symphony, at the Tampa Bay Performing Arts Center. Then he'll head over to the USF Tampa campus for the 2 p.m. dress rehearsal and 4 p.m. orchestra performance.

"Turning from Shostakovich to you is going to be challenging," Wiedrich said to Lee after the rehearsal Monday. Also on the USF orchestra's program are Bernstein's Symphonic Dances; a movement of the Sibelius Violin Concerto, with soloist Christina Adams; and Hindemith's Symphonic Metamorphosis.

Lee is a cheerful presence around the complex of USF music classrooms, joking with students, flashing a big smile and thumbs-up sign to the orchestra after it played through her piece. But she is also candid about the difficulty of being a composer.

"When I write a piece, I have to get really depressed," she said over lunch. "Michael will try to cheer me up. It never works. I have to reach my bottom."

But the end result is worth the creative angst. "I love the challenge. I like thinking."

Lee started playing piano at 3 at the urging of her father, a Presbyterian choir director in Kaohsiung, Taiwan's second-biggest city. She studied with one of the country's leading composers, Wen Loong-hsing, went to Soochow University and dreamed of continuing her education at the Paris Conservatory. But her father and schoolteacher mother had another idea.

"They thought it would be significant for me to be able to communicate in English really well, so they made me a deal and supported my coming to America," said Lee, who earned a master's degree from Ohio University before getting into Michigan's music school to study with eminent composers William Albright, William Bolcom and Bright Sheng.

Asked about influences, she names 20th century Polish composer Witold Lutoslawski. "He is definitely my No. 1 choice," she said. "I love how his harmonic language always sounds so warm."

Lee, who received her doctorate in 2000, and Timpson lived and worked in Lawrence, Kansas, and Memphisbefore landing in Tampa, which she likes because the climate reminds her of Taiwan.

In some ways, Ni-Shang Qu, with its tuneful, simple style, is atypical of her music. In 2004, she won the Brandenburg Symphony Orchestra Composers Competition and wrote a heavier, more complex work, Life of Dom, inspired by the German city's cathedral dome.

Lee, who uses Finale composing software, has also written for traditional Chinese instruments, such as her concerto for guzheng, which resembles a zither.

"I have a different mind-set for different pieces, and Ni-Shang Qu is more audience-friendly," she said. "I want people to be happy when they hear it."

John Fleming can be reached at (727) 893-8716 or fleming@sptimes.com.