SALT LAKE CITY — Zhou Tian stood in broad daylight, staring at the railroad stretching over the Sierra-Nevada mountains near Truckee, California. It was here railroad workers had chiseled through the Sierra-Nevada granite during the 1860s, and 150 years later, up close, Zhou stood in awe of the tunnels the workers had drilled and blasted.
The 38-year-old Chinese American composer, an associate professor of composition at Michigan State University’s College of Music, was out West seeking inspiration for a piece to commemorate the transcontinental railroad on its 150th anniversary. He didn’t know much about the railroad’s history, so to compose his piece, Zhou needed firsthand experience; he needed to see and travel along the route.
After a busy year of cross-country research, followed by what the Grammy-nominated composer called four “intense” months of writing, Zhou finished his work just last month on April 1. The Utah Symphony is one of 13 orchestras in cities along the railroad’s route that commissioned the work, and under Thierry Fischer’s direction, the symphony will perform the new piece May 17 and 18 at Abravanel Hall — one of many arts events, including Utah Opera’s 10-minute opera premieres, celebrating the sesquicentennial.
“In a way, the railroad connected the country together, and the piece connects the country together via music,” Zhou said.
Zhou still remembers how he felt that September morning, around 9 a.m., looking at a stretch of the transcontinental railroad. Although it was still summertime, he was cold. Actually, he was freezing. And in that moment, taking in the chilly Sierra-Nevada air, Zhou was shocked because he knew many of the Chinese railroad workers had come from the subtropical climate of Guangdong province.
“Basically the warmest province in China, and they came here all the way to (the) Sierra Mountains to work on this project,” said Zhou, who came to the U.S. when he was 20 to study at the Curtis Institute of Music in Philadelphia. “As the research went on, I found out just how brutal and how difficult the environment was for the workers. … They worked through the winter … and from all the photos that I saw, they weren’t wearing any coats. They were just wearing typical tropical kind of clothes. It was heartbreaking, … and we know for a fact that many of them perished.”
That was just one experience Zhou had during his year of research.
“Those inspiring experiences actually transformed into musical ideas,” he said, noting that “Promise,” the slower second movement of his three-movement piece, “Transcend,” blends Chinese and Irish musical styles together as a “tribute to the lost people who put their heart and soul into this project.”
The first movement of Zhou’s work also tells its own story, in this case, the tension between man and nature. Titled “Pulse,” the movement begins calmly, reflecting the quiet desert, before gradually building in intensity with the added pounding of percussion — symbolizing blasts of dynamite — punctuating the piece.
But it’s the final, third movement Zhou believes will likely be of most interest to Utahns. During his research, the composer discovered that from Promontory Summit, Utah, a one-word message was sent by telegraph to the East and West coasts on May 10, 1869: “D-O-N-E.”
That single word, sent via Morse code, signaled the completion of the transcontinental railroad. In Zhou’s mind, the combination of dashes and dots formed an exciting rhythm, one that captured the buzz of such an extraordinary moment. That Morse code rhythm is now a recurring theme throughout the third movement.
Zhou didn’t sleep much during the four months it took to compose “Transcend.” In fact, he said getting five hours of sleep the night he submitted the piece was “heaven.” But he wouldn’t have had it any other way. His work got its world premiere last month with the Reno Philharmonic, and now, the Utah Symphony will be the second orchestra to perform “Transcend” before the piece moves on to the other orchestras that commissioned it.
“It was all completely worth it, and what an exciting journey,” he said. “Hopefully it will spark a conversation about (the) transcontinental railroad, because it’s such a monumental and significant event in our history, and it's still being used.”
‘The Stone, the Tree and the Bird’
During her time as a Utah Opera chorus member, Christine McDonough played everything from a lowly peasant to a tipsy baroness. And now, after 18 seasons and more than 50 productions with Utah Opera, McDonough is about to watch the company bring her own opera to life.
Called “The Stone, the Tree and the Bird,” McDonough’s work is one of four 10-minute operas Utah Opera selected to help commemorate the transcontinental railroad’s 150th anniversary. With music by composer Jacob Lee, an adjunct music professor at Southern Utah University, the opera is more abstract than the other selections, imagining a campfire conversation between three transcontinental railroad workers the evening before the ceremony at Promontory Summit. Against the glowing fire, the workers dream about what they will do now that the historic job is done.
“‘The Stone, the Tree and the Bird’ equate to characters in my story,” McDonough said. “So stone is Stillman Stone, and he wants to stay where he is. The tree is Johnny, and he wants to go back home to his roots, and bird is Billy, and he wants to fly away and go see the world. There’s more … talk about the future and their relationships rather than the railroad, per se.”
The other 10-minute operas include the comic “No Ladies in the Lady’s Book,” by composer Lisa DeSpain and librettist Rachel Peters, which explores women’s contributions to the transcontinental railroad; “Completing the Picture,” by composer Michael Ching and librettist Victoria Panella Bourns, which addresses the neglect and harsh working conditions Chinese laborers faced; and “Burial,” by composer Tony Solitro and librettist/Utah poet laureate Paisley Rekdal, which features a confrontation between a town mayor and a cafe owner over how to appropriately bury and honor Chinese laborers who helped build the railroad.
A couple of days after the Utah Symphony’s premiere of Zhou’s “Transcend,” Utah Opera’s resident artists will put on free performances of these works from May 20-22, in Brigham City, Ogden and Salt Lake City. The four 10-minute operas were selected from a total of about 50 submissions, according to Paula Fowler, Utah Symphony and Utah Opera’s director of education and community outreach. The organization spearheaded this contest with help from the McCarthey Family Foundation, Utah’s Spike 150 initiative and the Hal R. and Naoma J. Tate Foundation.
McDonough, who learned about the contest two weeks before the deadline last July, said she came up with the concept and general outline for her story in just a day, but spent another week developing the wording and tone. A month later, Utah Opera had selected “The Stone, the Tree and the Bird,” and McDonough was workshopping and developing her story with the company.
“A lot of people talk about how opera is such a declining art and nobody’s really into it, but it’s really this thriving, living thing that gets produced all over the world all the time,” she said. “Opera is not dead. There’s an opera happening every day somewhere, and (Utah Opera is) taking an active, strategic role in keeping opera alive.”
Beyond the sesquicentennial
In addition to preserving a longstanding art form, the 10-minute operas and the stories they tell also help preserve the history and memory of the transcontinental railroad, and according to Fowler, Utah Opera doesn’t plan to shelve these operas once the sesquicentennial has passed.
“Maybe we can keep them alive and take them to some of these other towns where the history of the railroad has been very important,” she said. “Because we're looking back at this history and we're reflecting on it and thinking, ‘What have we learned?’”
Like Utah Opera, Zhou also hopes his piece “Transcend” will outlive the sesquicentennial, keeping alive the stories and people behind a significant moment in history as it circulates through orchestras across the country over the next few years.
“The transcontinental railroad, it’s still being used,” he said. "To me, the transcontinental railroad transcended the different cultures and people to become a symbol of human perseverance and (the) relentless pursuit of a better life for all.”
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What: Utah Symphony performs Zhou Tian's “Transcend”
When: May 17, 7:30 p.m.; May 18, 5:30 p.m.
Where: Abravanel Hall, 123 W. South Temple
How much: $15-$92
What: Utah Opera's 10-minute opera premieres
When: May 20, 7:30 p.m.
Where: Brigham City Fine Arts Center, 58 S. 100 West, Brigham City
When: May 21, 7:30 p.m.
Where: Ogden Union Station Browning Theater, 2501 Wall Ave., Ogden
When: May 22, 7:30 p.m.
Where: Gallivan Center, 239 S. Main
How much: free, but ticket required