Elizabeth Hainen & Philadelphia Orchestra to Present U.S. Premiere of NU-SHU: THE SECRET SONGS OF WOMEN, 10/31-11/1

Elizabeth Hainen & Philadelphia Orchestra to Present U.S. Premiere of NU-SHU: THE SECRET SONGS OF WOMEN, 10/31-11/1

Elizabeth Hainen, Principal Harpist of The Philadelphia Orchestra, gives the US premiere of Tan Dun's Nu-Shu: The Secret Songs of Women on Thursday, October 31, with the orchestra under Music Director Yannick Nézet-Séguin in Verizon Hall, repeated on November 1. The 30-minute multimedia work incorporates short films directed by Tan (thirteen, at this writing), projected behind the orchestra with sound as the piece unfolds.

Nu-Shu ("women's writing") is an ancient, secret code shared only by women in a remote area of Tan's home province of Hunan - the only known gender-based written language. There is no historical record of its origins. For centuries, messages written in Nu-Shu along the folds of a secret fan or embroidered in cloth were often the only means for a woman to communicate with her sisters. "Nu Shu is a language of intimacy and suffering," says Tan. "It is disappearing... Very few women can still write, sing, and communicate in it." Over a two-year period, Tan traveled to the village of Shang Gan Tang with a small video crew to film six women, most of them elderly, who have been entrusted with preserving the language. Their songs, words, and images, captured in "micro-films" lasting about 1 to 5 minutes long, became the foundation for Nu-Shu, which premiered on May 22 in Tokyo with Tan conducting the NHK Symphony Orchestra.

Writing for harp and orchestra presents special technical and artistic challenges; concertos for the instrument by top-ranked composers are rare. Hainen, who has frequently collaborated with Tan, worked closely with him to develop the solo part for Nu-Shu. Says Hainen, "After two years of research, Tan contacted me to say how excited he was to find the perfect premise for the concerto.He feels that the graceful strokes of Nu-Shu calligraphy mirror the harp's feminine form, making it the perfect protagonist to tell the story of a women's ancient culture. I asked Tan to give the harp a powerful but expressive voice, but otherwise I didn't suggest any parameters."

Tan's "impressionistic and organic working style" has made for an exceptionally fluid and collaborative working process, notes Hainen. "Right up to the finish, he had me experiment with a variety of sounds and effects before deciding which to include. I hope audiences are impressed by the harp's versatility as a solo instrument, and its capacity to touch the human soul with a unique and holistic sound.

"We are unfortunately still living in a world where millions of women are victims to discrimination and violence. For me, playing this piece represents an incredible opportunity to introduce audiences to a secret society of women who have had to devise their own way to communicate. Tan's ability to tell their stories and give their ancient language a current voice is remarkable."

In Tan's orchestration, some of the villagers' songs are treated simply, while others serve as jumping-off points for more intricate textures and harmonies. Not all of the films include singing: some capture the ambient sounds of the village, woven into the live orchestral fabric.

Right: a song, "How to Train a Woman," in Nu-Shu calligraphy (top) and Chinese.

Nu-Shu: The Secret Songs of Women came into being as part of a Philadelphia Commissions Micro-Festival, October 31 - November 2, a key artistic initiative of Nézet-Séguin's second season as the orchestra's Music Director. Three international composers have been commissioned to compose solo works for three of the Orchestra's principal musicians. Along with the US premiere of Nu-Shu with Hainen, Nézet-Séguin will conduct Principal Flute Jeffrey Khaner in the premiere of Behzad Ranjbaran's Flute Concerto, and Principal Bassoon Daniel Matsukawa in the premiere of David Ludwig's Pictures from the Floating World, for bassoon and orchestra. Over the course of three days, the Orchestra will present three distinct programs, each containing two of the three commissions in different pairings. All three composers will be in residence over the weekend to share their insights into the complex, creative process that exists between composer and soloist.

According to Yannick Nézet-Séguin, the Commissions Micro-Festival demonstrates the Orchestra's commitment and responsibility to champion new music, while also showcasing what he calls the ensemble's "genius" musicians. "They are among the most virtuosic and the best in their field," he adds, "and by partnering with 21st-century composers, they can develop a new language for their instruments."

Nu-Shu is commissioned by the NHK Symphony Orchestra, Tokyo, The Philadelphia Orchestra, and Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra Amsterdam.

Photo Credit: Peggy Abrams