Chinese-American composer Zhou Tian’s father was a composer but didn’t encourage his musically talented son to follow in his career path. “He knew it wasn’t easy, and he didn’t push me. But when I visited his studio I was struck by the excitement and immediacy of music making.”

Composer Zhou Tian. Credit: Harley Seeley

The result will be readily apparent May 22, when the Evanston Symphony Orchestra performs Transcend, Zhou’s recent three-movement work.

The piece was commissioned in 2019 by the Reno Philharmonic to commemorate the symphony’s 50th year and 150th anniversary of the completion of the transcontinental railroad. Ultimately, 12 other orchestras nationwide formed a consortium to underwrite and perform the composition, including the ESO.

To help with the composition, Zhou embarked on a one-year, cross-country trip to visit sites connected with the railroad’s history. He said the journey was “inspiring and productive,” including a stop at the Durham Museum in Omaha, Nebraska, where he discovered an obscure fact that turned out to be critical in the composition of the piece.

Transcend has three movements: “Pulse,” the dramatic percussion of the tunnels being dynamited; “Promise,” a meditation on the workers who built the railroad; and “D-O-N-E,” the one-word morse code sent on May 10, 1869, signifying the railroad’s completion, the rhythmic motif of which forms the basis of the movement.

“When I heard about it, I raced back to my hotel to listen to the Morse code on my laptop, literally praying the rhythm would be interesting,” he said. “It was better than that, it was fantastic.” (This was the obscure fact.)

Zhou teaches composition at Michigan State University and lives in Royal Oak, Michigan. He was born in 1981 in Hangzhou, China, where his father composed commercial film and TV music. Zhou came to the United States in 2001 to study composition at Curtis Institute in Philadelphia. Among his classmates were violinist Hilary Hahn and pianist Lang Lang.

Since then he has composed some 60 works for symphony orchestra, wind ensemble, chamber music, solo piano, voice and other combinations as well as for film, like his father. His 2016 piece, Concerto for Orchestra, was nominated for a Grammy award for Best Contemporary Classical Competition and a PBS documentary chronicling the making of Transcend won a Silver Telly award in 2020.

“As a Chinese-born composer who immigrated to this country, educated at the nation’s top music schools, and now serving at one of its finest institutions, I was moved to create this new work to tell a musical story, to celebrate human perseverance and transcendence, and to pay tribute to my own cultural heritage,” Zhou has written.

Zhou describes his musical style as “tonal, symphonic, at times edgy but underneath there’s a sense of Romanticism,” which interested listeners can hear at his website.

“I’m thrilled that the ESO is one of the 13 orchestras that commissioned the work, and I’m ecstatic to be performing it,” said ESO Music Director Lawrence Eckerling. “This is one of those new pieces that is instantly audience friendly and depicts the breadth of the project, both geographically from the east coast to the west coast, and also aspirationally, in terms of the largeness of such a project.”

Cellist Arlen Hlusko. Credit: Jiyang Chen Photography

In addition to Transcend, the ESO will perform two Romantic crowd pleasers, the Dvorak Cello Concerto with soloist Arlen Hlusko and Tchaikovsky’s Romeo and Juliet Overture. Hlusko, who is originally from Ontario, Canada and was recently featured on CBC’s “30 under 30,” has been hailed for her “sublime cello prowess” (Take Effect), “absorbing originality” (Gramophone) and “mesmerizing beauty” (NY Music Daily).

The concert is scheduled for 2:30 p.m. Sunday, May 22, at Pick-Staiger Concert Hall, 50 Arts Circle Drive on the Northwestern lakefront campus. Tickets range from $5 to $39. For ticket and other information call 847-864-8804, email or visit the ESO’s website.

ESO General Manager David Ellis and Music Director Eckerling will host a free preview of the concert at 1:30 p.m. Friday, May 20, at The Merion, 1611 Chicago. Ave. Joining them will be composer Zhou and cellist Hlusko to explore the May concert program in depth. To attend this free event, RSVP at 847-570-7815.

Les Jacobson

Les is a longtime Evanstonian and RoundTable writer and editor. He won a Chicago Newspaper Guild best feature story award in 1975 for a story on elderly suicide and most recently four consecutive Northern...

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