When Zhou Tian, an associate composition professor at Michigan State University, sat down in 2015 for an intensive five-month writing retreat, he wasn't thinking about the Grammy Awards.
Tian was simply happy to be working with the Cincinnati Symphony, who commissioned him and two other composers, to create a piece for their 2016 "Concerto for Orchestra" series. Now, two years after his premiere performance with the Cincinnati Symphony, Tian is walking the red carpet with music’s biggest stars, thanks to his nomination for Best Contemporary Classical Composition.
“I hope to mingle with Jay-Z and get a selfie with Cardi B,” Tian laughed.
Christian Kolo, a senior composition major at MSU, has studied closely with Tian. Kolo has heard the other nominated works, and firmly believes Tian has the potential to take home the coveted golden gramophone.
“I’m definitely rooting for him to win,” said Kolo. “This piece definitely represents the best of his work. It’s well-orchestrated and extremely detailed. It’s just a very dense representation of what an orchestra can do, and he definitely proves he can handle it.”
Tian himself said his composition ranges from “absolutely epic to extremely intimate.”
As a composer, Tian has always been fascinated by the orchestra. When he was commissioned to write “Concerto for Orchestra,” he set out to create a piece that would pay tribute to orchestra’s rich history.
“I wrote it as a love letter to the symphony orchestra,” Tian explained.
His composition is comprised of four movements, “Glow,” “Indigo,” “Seeker’s Scherzo” and “Intermezzo-Allegro.” The movements take listeners on a voyage of clashing climaxes, meditative melodies and intense rhapsodies. The work as a whole is 35 minutes.
Tian’s previous vacations to France and Spain, and the memories and inspirations of romance he brought back from there, had a heavy impression on his writing.
“Writing orchestral music is a little different from basically every other kind of art creation out there,” Tian explained. “When I was writing this symphony piece, I didn’t get to have the symphony try out my ideas.”
Tian can test out simple melodies and chord changes, but said it doesn’t even remotely compare to the difference in timbres that can be performed when you have an entire symphony.
“I really don’t get to hear the real work until the first rehearsal, so it’s both nerve-wracking and an incredibly exhilarating experience,” Tian said. “When it works, the feeling is awesome.”
The Grammy Awards air tonight, and you just might see Tian walking across the stage, earning another reward from his love of orchestra.
Tian’s composition is up against these nominees: Adam Schoenberg, Tigran Mansurian, Richard Danielpour and Jennifer Higdon.
UPDATE: The award was given to Higdon, for "Viola Concerto."