China trip offers music profs new perspective

(From left) Eric Richards, Gene Aitken and Paul Haar stand next to a poster advertising the Shanghai Conservatory Jazz Orchesta's concert featuring the commissioned work of Richards with guest soloist Haar.
(From left) Eric Richards, Gene Aitken and Paul Haar stand next to a poster advertising the Shanghai Conservatory Jazz Orchesta's concert featuring the commissioned work of Richards with guest soloist Haar.

Music faculty Eric Richards and Paul Haar traveled to China in November to perform and deliver master classes at the Shanghai Conservatory of Music.

The Shanghai Conservatory Jazz Orchestra performed a concert featuring compositions by Richards, assistant professor of composition and jazz studies. One of Richards' friends and mentor, Gene Aitken, former director of the jazz studies program at the University of Northern Colorado and now a guest professor at the Shanghai Conservatory, has commissioned works by Richards since the mid-1990s. Aitken has commissioned a new piece annually from Richards since 2008 for the Shanghai Conservatory's fall concert.

This year's piece, “Booming-Blowing,” was particularly ambitious.

“The purpose of the piece was to combine some elements of classical Chinese music, which we might term folk music, and contemporary American jazz,” Richards said. “It involved taking an existing score (“Booming”) composed by Xang Zhuru for a Chinese percussion ensemble. It was about a 10-minute piece. (Aitken) asked me if I could build a jazz ensemble piece around this existing score.”

Aitken invited Richards to come to China for the premiere. Aitken was also familiar with Haar's work and invited him to come, too. The fall concert featured all of the commissioned works by Richards. Haar, associate professor of saxophone and jazz studies, performed guest solos on two of the pieces. “Booming-Blowing” was the finale of the concert.

“It received a standing ovation,” Richards said.

“Booming-Blowing” included four major sections.

“In each section, I tried to use the rhythmic motives from the percussion score to develop a melodic and harmonic realization of my own jazz score,” Richards said. “Much of the material had a Rock or Latin feel to it. It ended up being almost like a miniature suite. The students liked it very much. The jazz musicians felt like it enabled them to interact well with the percussion ensemble.”

Another piece performed was “Fantasia on Spring River Flower Moon Night,” which was commissioned for the 2010 concert. "Fantasia" incorporates two traditional Chinese instruments — the pipa, which is like a lute, and the guzheng, a 23-string zither — into the jazz piece.

Richards also gave master classes on jazz theory and arranging at the Shanghai Conservatory of Music, while Haar gave master classes on improvisation and classical saxophone.

Haar was impressed with the respect students gave both Richards and Haar during these classes.

“When you call it a 'master class,' they truly believe that,” Haar said. “You are there to speak, and they believe you have done what you need to do to be there. Their university wouldn't put someone in front of them who wasn't skilled or able.”

They also appreciated another Chinese custom in which it is considered disrespectful for a professor or guest artist to carry his own bags.

“Everywhere I went, I had a student carrying my saxophone,” Haar said. “One day, when they were going to rehearse 'Booming,' I didn't have to be there, so I was going to go back to the hotel and catch up on some sleep. I was going to grab my saxophone and go back and a student said, 'No, no, no. I'll bring your saxophone to you.' Sure enough, at 9:30 that night, the doorbell at my hotel room rang, and he brought my saxophone to me. That was very unique.”

It was the first trip to China for both professors and both appreciated the experience.

“I think for a composer, any time you can step out of your culture and have a wider, broader view of the world, that just makes what informs your own music that much richer,” Richards said. “What really strikes me is the great degree of commonality among musicians. Even though there was a language barrier, wherever you go in the world, musicians are able to instantaneously able to relate to each other. Musicians across the world, no matter in what culture they are raised, tend to be humane, thinking, compassionate people.”

Haar said the experience gave him a more global perspective of how powerful music is.

“I said I would never come back the same person, the same teacher, the same player,” he said. “I believe that happened.”

After leaving Shanghai, Richards and Haar also traveled to Taiwan for a concert of Richards' music with the Taipei Jazz Orchestra. Haar also guest soloed at the concert and presented a master class and artist talk sponsored by his instrument company.

“Taiwan was a little different vibe,” Richards said. “The city of Taipei is close enough to the ocean, you can feel the effects. It was like a little trip to a tropical island there for a few days in November.”

Both Haar and Richards hope this trip might create possibilities for more collaboration between the School of Music and the Shanghai Conservatory of Music.

“We've had some discussions with (School of Music director) John Richmond about reciprocating and perhaps bringing their jazz director here to do a concert and feature him,” Haar said.

Richards said they are interested in making sure this relationship goes both ways, so their students and faculty can come here, and students and faculty from UNL can go there. He is excited to see what might develop.

“I think this is the beginning of a beautiful friendship,” he said.

— Kathe Andersen, Fine and Performing Arts