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Dallas composer's work gets world premiere by renowned Philadelphia Orchestra

IMG_0590.JPG Woman standing in classroom facing a projection wall showing words and a black circle
Bill Zeeble
SMU music professor and composer, Xi Wang, explains her new piece, Ensō, to students and professors as it plays from an electronic recording.

SMU professor Xi Wang's work "Ensō" was commissioned by the Philadelphia Orchestra. It's Wang's attempt to seek peace and enlightenment after traumas of the past few years.

In an SMU classroom of music students and professors, composer Xi Wang’s 39-page score is projected onscreen. We heard it, played electronically, as Wang explained her approach to the opening of "Ensō," her new, 15-minute work.

“Look at this contour,” Wang instructed the class.

She sang: “Fa la tee le la lee. Fa la tee le la lee. That’s a half circle. If I put this half to here – da la lee le la lee de le la la lee. . . Is that interesting? It’s interesting to me. I’m using music to draw a circle.”

Those musical notes, as they visually appear on the page, do form a kind of circle. There’s a reason, said Wang. In part, it’s because she wrote "Ensō" to respond to the piece that preceded it. That one was about the year 2020, with all its traumas - from the deadly pandemic and economic strife to civil unrest and riots. (The Dallas Symphony Orchestra will debut it in 2024.) She said the year exhausted her.

“I felt I needed a healing piece for myself. And then there comes "Ensō,"” Wang said.

Ensō is a Zen symbol about enlightenment…it’s a circle drawn with one stroke.

”It refers to the circle of enlightenment. Did I get enlightenment? I don't know. But I was looking for healing. I was looking for the way to let things go after 2020.”

There’s another section of "Ensō" where things do let go in a dramatically musical manner.

Back in the class, Wang jumped ahead in the score, where we hear a constant, repeating rhythm.

“I want to show this section because I wanted to show you what can I do with an 8th note. There’s no other rhythm,” Wang explained.

Remember, Wang isn’t just a composer. She teaches composition. She’s illustrating how music can demonstrate a release - - again – a way to let things go. It occurs musically after that driving pulse just stops, if only for a second.

“I consider the climax of this piece the most intimidating space - is that rest when the whole orchestra - - -bam!” Wang said loudly.

After a dramatic pause, the music restarts.

“That’s the most intimidating. And I love that,” said Wang.

And Wang loves composing, but that wasn’t always the case.

Xi Wang was born in China, in 1978, two years after the cultural revolution. Her parents just returned to the city after working in the fields. They bought her a toy piano, wanting to give her the education they’d been denied. An expert determined Wang had musical talent. So she started lessons on a real piano.

In China, in the 1980s, it cost $250 – all her parent’s savings. It put them in debt for years.

“My mom's whole month's salary goes to my piano teacher $2 per lesson, but my mom only makes $8 per month,” Wang said. “So for me, I know how precious education is.”

Wang became an outstanding pianist, but her small hands dashed plans for a concert career. By now, though, music called her. So she began composing.

“When there are things that I cannot express through words,” Wang said, “I can express it through music. And I'm free when I speak through music. And that's how I know I should be a composer. I can feel it.”

What Wang’s audiences should feel, she says, is up to them.

She’s done her part, put her passion on the page, shared it with students and colleagues and now, the Philadelphia Orchestra will share it with their audience.

Wang can’t wait.

Bill Zeeble has been a full-time reporter at KERA since 1992, covering everything from medicine to the Mavericks and education to environmental issues.