In 1986, Two Poems from the Song Dynasty for soprano and chamber orchestra was premiered by a wonderful new music group in New York City called “Music Today,” led by a very talented young conductor named Gerard Schwarz. The concert also afforded my first review by the New York Times. The next day, Leonard Bernstein called me, asking me to bring the score and recording to our next lesson. I was a bit elated. After all, not only was this my first commission by a professional music institution since I had come to the United States four years earlier, but I also received my first favorable review.
A few days later, I brought the cassette tape recording of the performance and played for Lenny, expecting praise. Instead, he kept a long silence before asking: “Why did you write this work?”
I was speechless. At the time, the trend was to reply: “I wrote it for myself,” following the fashionable article Who Cares If You Listen. But I knew it wouldn’t be true. Bernstein, seeing my hesitation, drilled further: “Did you write this work for Gerard Schwarz, for the New York Times, for your teacher, for your composer friends, or yourself?” He then took up a pen and wrote it on the cover of the score To Whom Is It Written
I have been pondering the answer ever since. Through time, I realized Bernstein was asking a different question, as he knew that I was struggling to start a career in my newly adopted country: now, as an artist who is supported by professional institutions, what should I do in return?
I think of this story when I listen to Vincent Ho’s music, especially his most recent release which is full of life and energy. We all believe that a civilized society should support art. But not all of us think too much about why, or, more precisely, about the responsibilities of the artists to society.
Perhaps the answer to Bernstein’s question could be inspired by watching movies. Why do we care about the characters in a film, when we know full well it is a made-up story? The characters are hired actors and actresses, and the story has nothing to do with our lives. Why do we invest our emotions so much so that we laugh and cry with these characters?
Like all important art, Ho’s music has the power to draw us in and make us forget our existence for a few seconds, either allowing us to have tremendous fun or, sometimes simultaneously, making us contemplate our own lives. It also keeps a wonderful balance of the new and the familiar, of logic and intuition. Isn’t that what we all strive to achieve?
It is also wonderful to tell that Vincent really enjoys transforming his musical expressions to touch and move the listener. Like Stravinsky, his music style changes and emerges, but his expressiveness and musical personality do not — it always directly touches the listeners’ hearts and brings them into his exciting world.
– Bright Sheng
The Leonard Bernstein Distinguished University Professor of Music
School of Music, Theater and Dance
University of Michigan