I first met Chinese-Canadian composer An-Lun Huang in 1989. Devastated by the Tiananmen Square Massacre in Beijing, China in June of that year, in which untold numbers of demonstrators had been ruthlessly gunned down by soldiers and police, Huang composed his Symphonic Overture No. 2 Op. 47 Tiananmen, the first performance of which I conducted with the CJRT Orchestra Nov. 12, 1989. Nearly 30 years have passed and Huang, today recognized as one of the leading Chinese composers of his generation, now divides his time between Toronto and China.
Huang Feili (1917-2017), Huang’s father, studied with composer Paul Hindemith at Yale University in the USA before returning to China to pursue a career as a conductor. He started the first conductor training program in China at the Central Conservatory in Tianjin in 1956 before falling victim to the horrors of the Cultural Revolution (1966-1976). In 1969 Huang Feili, An-Lun Huang and thousands of others were sent to the countryside to work as labourers. Over the duration of the Cultural Revolution, all universities in China were shut down, some teachers were put in jail, others were publicly humiliated, and still, others put to death.
In 1971, while still living in rural exile, Huang was given access to a piano, and began to compose. Two of his Preludes from this period are included on this new CD. Not surprisingly — Huang was only 21 at this time — the music, with recollections of Chopin, is rather romantic in style. In 1979 when the Cultural Revolution finally came to an end, Huang, still a student, composed the ballet score, A Dream of Dunhuang. He later arranged three dances, which clearly reference some of the Chinese folk music from the ballet for solo piano.
With the end of the Cultural Revolution, life in China slowly began to return to something resembling normal. Some students were able to resume their studies. Huang chose to go abroad as his father had done before him, earning his undergraduate degree at the Faculty of Music, University of Toronto, followed by a Masters degree from Yale University.
A large part of this new CD is devoted to Four Large Preludes and Fugues Op. 68, many of which have their roots in Huang’s large-scale works for chorus and orchestra such as A Psalm of David, Revelation and Glorious Church. The strongest musical influence, however, is clearly Bach by way of Liszt and Hindemith.Huang’s Chinese cultural identity, while also evident in these pieces, is never proclaimed superficially in the form of quotations from folk songs or trivial chinoiserie. On the contrary; An-lun Huang’s music is the unique expression of the creative spirit of a man who has had the opportunity and the misfortune to have his life nurtured, damaged and reborn by two vastly different cultures.
Huang’s most important works to date, the monumental religious choral works of his later years, deserve to be better-known; that said, Toccata Classics deserves enormous credit for at least bringing most of his piano music to a wider audience.
Xing Rong, the outstanding young pianist on this CD, plays the music of An-lun Huang with intelligence and a solid technique. A graduate of the Cleveland Institute of Music and the University of North Texas, she has won competitions all over China and has appeared several times at Carnegie Hall. Among her teachers was Joseph Banowetz who himself championed the music of An-lun Huang years ago with a fine recording of the composer’s Piano Concerto in g minor (Marco Polo 8.225830).