The new year dawns bright on Taiwanese women. On Saturday, Taiwan’s first female president, Tsai Ing-wen, won reelection with more votes than any candidate in national history. What’s more, a newly elected 41.6 percent female legislature has achieved the highest gender parity among Asian democracies. It seems fitting that this week’s Boston Symphony Orchestra concerts bring the world premiere of “Formosan Triptych,” a native daughter’s homage to Taiwan’s diverse cultural heritage.
Chihchun Chi-sun Lee is only the fourth composer of Asian descent with a BSO commission. Currently based in South Korea, Lee grew up in the Presbyterian church in Kaohsiung on Taiwan’s southwest coast, once a bastion of resistance against the Chinese Nationalist authoritarian regime (1945-’80s). Lee’s businessman father conducted the church choir in which her mother, a high school teacher, sang. Impressed by the “big sister” church organist, toddler Lee asked for lessons and started down a path that led (by way of a middle school rock band) to studying composition in Taipei, and then at Ohio University and the University of Michigan.
Her work often includes surprising combinations in instrumentation and style: pipa with clarinet; zheng with tuba; Chinese, Japanese, and Korean variants of similar traditional instruments freely mixing, with a generous dose of saxophone; a brassy syncopated police whistle that pulses into a percussive Taiwanese temple band that dances into an Afro-Cuban jazz beat with flares of bossa nova and Gershwin.
Asked what drives her, Lee talked about curiosity and playfulness, a desire to attempt the unexpected. “As a child, I was never able to sit still. I always feel the need to seek new stimulation,” she said via phone from Seoul. “So, compositionally, I like to look for new techniques, sound colors, textures, and push myself to break through. If no one else has tried something before, I get excited and want to be the first.”
“Formosan Triptych” specifically references the microtonal polyphonies of the indigenous Bunun tribe of Taiwan’s central mountains, Hoklo folk opera from the north, and Minung Hakka music from the south. Lee has explored these grounds before, so the greater challenge lies in translation, in how to channel authenticity for an orchestra of BSO’s scale.
Original plans to bring a Hakka percussion master to the BSO from Minung fell apart under visa difficulties. Instead, Lee video-recorded the player’s demonstrations and brought a full set of instruments from Taiwan, with the goal of accurately reproducing the timbres. One Taiwanese gong, for example, “has more complex harmonics, a more metallic tone color, and rings longer” than others that might appear similar, she noted.
To evoke the Bunun humming choruses, French horn and trombone players perform double duty. “I didn’t want to be too mean,” Lee laughed. “So they only have to hum the same notes as they play them, in their own registers.”
BSO Assistant Conductor and 2018 Tanglewood Conducting Fellow Yu-An Chang leads all four performances of “Formosan Triptych” (as well as Mozart’s Piano Concerto No. 25 in C, featuring soloist Till Fellner, and Tchaikovsky’s Symphony No. 3). Also from Taiwan, Chang studied bamboo flute before transferring to Western orchestral conducting. He suggested Lee’s work to the BSO.
“Technically, there is nothing the BSO can’t do,” Chang said via e-mail this week. “The challenge here is how to convey the intended atmosphere and emotion … so people without a Taiwanese cultural background still appreciate the unique aesthetics.”
CHIHCHUN CHI-SUN LEE’S FORMOSAN TRIPTYCH
At Symphony Hall, Jan. 16-21. 617-266-1200, bso.org.
Semiosis Quartet performs Lee’s “Quartet for Arirang” at Pao Center for the Arts, Jan. 19.
CJ Ru is on Twitter at @cjruse.