December 6, 1955 -
born in Shanghai, China, composed during the Contemporary period
Bright Sheng, Sheng Zong-Liang in Chinese, is a classical composer whose education and inspiration spanned the infamous Cultural Revolution and two continents. His first name, Bright, was adopted from an English character in a book, Mr. Bright, which seemed appropriate since his Chinese name, Liang, means "bright lights." He has developed into a successful composer in the U.S. and is the recipient of many high honors and commissions. Two of his compositions, H'un (Lacerations): In Memoriam 1966-1976 and Four movements for Piano Trio, were both first runner-ups for the Pulitzer Prize in 1989 and 1991, respectively.
His musical training began when he was four years of age with piano lessons from his mother and later from a private teacher. Sheng was 11 years old when the Revolution began in 1966. Authorities confiscated his family's piano, for which he wasn't displeased, as it put an end to his lessons. Chairman Mao dictated that schooling would not proceed past junior high and these young people should enter the work force. As there were few jobs available, many young people were sent to the country to live and work with the rural peasant class. Fortunately for Sheng, Mao's wife, Jiang Quing, supported the performing arts and provided funds for performing companies to cultivate new, young talent. He was sent to Qinghai in western China and received a three-year contract with a song and dance troupe with whom he played piano. During his seven years in Qinghai, his musical education proceeded without benefit of learned teachers.
Sheng's formal musical education resumed after the end of the Cultural Revolution in 1976, with entrance into the Shanghai Conservatory of Music where he earned his undergraduate degree. Prior to coming to the U.S., Sheng's composing talents were being recognized in Chinese competitions. He won first prize in the Art Song competition in 1979 and took first and second prizes in the Chamber Music Composition Competition in 1980. After coming to the U.S. in 1982, Sheng earned a master's degree and a doctorate from Queens College and Columbia University, respectively. He studied under such eminent composers as Leonard Bernstein, Mario Davidovsky, Chou Wenchung, Hugo Weisgall, and George Perle. He continued receiving acclaim from such prestigious organizations as the National Endowment for the Arts, the Guggenheim, Rockefeller, Koussevitzky, and Naumburg Foundations, the Tanglewood Music Center, the Mary Flagler Cary Charitable Trust, and the American Academy and Institute of Arts and Letters. Sheng has held composer-in-residence positions at the Santa Fe Chamber Music Festival, the Seattle Symphony, and the Lyric Opera of Chicago. He was also the artistic director of the San Francisco Symphony's Wet Ink 93 festival and was an artist-in-residence at the University of Washington. He has received numerous commissions from many American and foreign orchestras.
The Cultural Revolution and the time he spent in Qinghai proved to be major influences on Sheng's music. Sheng composed H'un (Lacerations): In Memoriam 1966-1976 and China Dreams based on experiences from the Cultural Revolution. Other pieces, such as the opera Song of Majnun and Two Folk Songs From Qinghai, are based on folk songs learned while he was in Qinghai. Sheng is also influenced by the Hungarian composer, Béla Bartók, who himself used folk music elements in his compositions.
Bright Sheng is an associate professor of music at the University of Michigan; he contributed to Yo-Yo Ma's Silk Road Project, which took him back to his native China in the summer of 2000. Among his illustrious protégés is the noted composer Michael Rodman. ~ Bruce Lundgren, Rovi