Using new music to tip the scales for justice

Mount Holyoke associate professor Tianhui Ng worked with White Snake Projects to stage an online concert.

By Kevin McCaffrey

On May 13, White Snake Projects, which presents original and socially relevant operas, staged an online concert of compositions by musicians and composers from around the world committed to using the power of words and music to bring about meaningful change.

The music director for this project, “Sing Out Strong: DeColonized Voices,” was Associate Professor of Music Tianhui Ng, an accomplished conductor and new music advocate who has made presenting works that promote equity and social justice a centerpiece of his creative work.

The concert, presented through Facebook, Zoom and YouTube, featured works ranging from accomplished musicians to high school students who performed music and stories of Cape Verde, the Nipmuc Nation of Massachusetts, Hong Kong, the Dominican Republic, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Vietnam, Haiti, the Chickasaw Nation of Oklahoma and a multiplicity of heritages in the United States.

For Tian, this project is an example of two new trends in contemporary music.

"We are seeing a profusion of amazing new works in America involving shorter operas, smaller casts, and less instrumentation, while at the same time we are seeing a plethora of new voices dealing with contemporary issues,” Tian said. He noted that at the same time there is proliferation of new opera companies coming onto the scene. 

These emerging companies are focused on new works representing a much more diverse set of voices, often sharing their perspectives on contemporary issues.

Another trend: These contemporary works can come together quickly.

Tian is now working with White Snake on an opera, conceived and written in recent weeks, to be presented virtually in October. That work, "Alice in the Pandemic” will focus on issues including the current health crisis and its effects on communities of color and front-line health care workers. 

With a cast of three, a string quartet and electronic music, and enhanced Zoom technology, the work also represents the nimbleness of conception and production defining much serious music today. 

Tian’s experience is wide and deep. 

Tian has worked with orchestras and choral ensembles around the world and directs a number of orchestras, including the Pioneer Valley Symphony, Boston Opera Collaborative and the Mount Holyoke Symphony Orchestra, as well as various White Snake and other projects.

Well-known for bringing new music to fresh audiences, he has premiered new works by numerous composers, including works by Mount Holyoke’s David W. Sanford and “Ìrìn Àjò — Odyssey of a Dream” an opera by Five College Professor Olabode Festus Omojola.

In 2014, the Mount Holyoke Symphony Orchestra presented the East Coast premiere of “Dark River: The Fannie Lou Hamer Story,” a full-length, two-act opera conducted by Tian and directed by Darryl V. Jones, director of the award-winning 2009 Oakland Opera Theater production of the piece.

Composed by Mary D. Watkins, the opera centers on events in the life of Fannie Lou Hamer, a civil rights activist who was one of the first African Americans to register to vote in Mississippi. In 1964, as vice chair of the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party, Hamer challenged the all-white Mississippi delegation at the Democratic National Convention. 

Her riveting speech to the convention’s Credentials Committee was televised nationally, resulting in thousands of calls and letters in support of the Freedom Democrats.

Tian worked to reach outside the Five College area for the audience for this work and was able to bring many residents of Springfield and Holyoke to campus. Among the audience, he noted, were many African Americans for whom Hamer was a well-known hero.

“I think to have Mount Holyoke students be able to be a part of this effort and this audience was a way to expand their and the College’s understanding and perspectives on what music can achieve,” he said.

Showcasing Puerto Rican composers

Over the past three years, Tian has also served as music director for another initiative that exemplifies his commitment to building bridges between global and local. Centered in Holyoke, Massachusetts, the El Puerto Rico, The Rich Port project commissions and performs works by contemporary Puerto Rican composers to be premiered in one of the urban centers for Puerto Rican culture in the continental U.S. 

Sponsored by the MIFA Victory Theatre, El Puerto Rico, The Rich Port also brings together top young classical music players to not only premier these new works, but to offer performances and workshops in local schools.

“Tian is a wonderful artist who understands music that draws special power from the private world of the individual's imagination and the public world of social reality,” said Donald T. Sanders, MIFA’s executive artistic director. “He has played a key role in this first project of the MIFA Victory Theatre International Arts Academy’s Victory Players. I can't wait for audiences to be knocked out by El Puerto Rico 3 this January.”