Ilha Formosa: Music of Taiwan Program Notes

by Claudia Jensen and Bradley Clem

Shui-Long Ma, Legend of Taiwan: Overture of Chivalrous Liao Tian-Ding

Our concert today offers a kaleidoscopic view of contemporary Taiwanese music in all its diversity of styles, sounds, and subjects. We open with excerpts from a work about a legendary rebel named Tian-Ding Liao—Taiwan’s own Robin Hood. The composition is by Shui-Long Ma, one of Taiwan’s best known contemporary composers (he died in 2015). His music has been performed widely, celebrated for its ability not just to merge East and West, but to get at the heart of both traditions by, as the critic Bernard Holland put it, “letting his instruments speak in a European voice but with an Asian mind.” This approach is beautifully illustrated in the two movements drawn from what was originally a ballet (1979) telling the story of this Taiwanese Robin Hood, whose exploits, in the late nineteenth century, took place during the Japanese rule of Taiwan; over the course of nearly thirty years, Liao (who died in 1909) was able to foil the rulers and give aid to the poor. Ma’s bright and accessible approach is evident in these selections, the Overture and the multisectional processional “Festival at the Hsia Hai Cheng Huang Temple.” Ma blends Western orchestral timbres with distinctive percussion and rhythmic elements; the result is forceful and colorful. Ma was a restlessly exploratory composer, finding ever-new ways to combine or contrast, blend or blur the Eastern and Western materials he chose to employ. As he remarked in an interview from 2015, shortly before his death, “If I had a most satisfying work, it would probably be the one I haven’t yet written. The process of imagining it fills you with the anticipation of a good piece.”

Gordon Chin, Triple Concerto

Our next work—by another widely performed composer—is stylistically worlds away from the opening piece, but equally representative of Taiwan’s multifaceted musical scene. In spite of the composer’s own admission that he “fell into the mud” many times during his work on this concerto, the result is authoritative and encompassing, with many unexpected instrumental effects built into a dense orchestral fabric.

The first movement is based on an alternating refrain structure derived from poetic forms. “At the beginning,” the composer writes, “there are both strong and powerless themes that repeatedly appear in this movement, representing the process and mood of people walking. The two refrains represent ordinary sorrow and sorrowful joy. Interweaving the two forces, the music proceeds like human life, moving forward.” Throughout this “walk through human life,” Chin employs glissando or sliding effects and diverse percussion writing, climaxing in the combination of the two main themes.

The second movement begins with stillness—as Chin describes it, the mood is “morning, mist, and sounds of a stream.” He immediately introduces unusual effects: flutter tonguing, small punctuations by the winds, and some glides familiar from the first movement, all of which appear over sustained orchestral tones. An agitated section breaks the mood, and although eventually we work our way back to the opening stillness, the tranquility is not restored; as Chin writes, “the songs of life take over, smothering the remaining, tired resistance, until finally the traveler no longer argues.”

The composer describes the incisive third movement with one word: “roar.” There is darkness wherever one looks, he writes, “perhaps darkness is the emptiness of mankind—human existence is mixed with ordinary sorrow and sorrowful joy … The third movement expresses the angry struggle of facing the darkness, fighting persistently despite its futility.”

Tyzen Hsiao, Ilha Formosa: Requiem for Formosa’s Martyrs

Tyzen Hsiao’s passionate work reflects yet another facet of Taiwan’s complex history: the infamous and violent “228 Incident”—named after the event on Feb. 28, 1947, that initiated a series of protests against the corruption of those in power. Thousands died, including many students and intellectuals, when government troops attacked and arrested the protesters.

Tyzen Hsiao’s Ilha Formosa: Requiem for Formosa’s Martyrs commemorates the victims but, even beyond that, he uses sophisticated yet accessible musical language to express the heart of the Taiwanese people. As our own Julia Tai wrote in her doctoral thesis about this work, the composer uses “traditional Romantic era harmonies as a foundation of his composition, adding Taiwanese folk tunes and nationalistic melodic and rhythmic features to create his personal voice.” It is this generous, urgent style that propels the narrative of the Requiem. The work is also based on intensive engagement with the text. As Julia writes: “Not only does he derive the rhythm for his piece from the natural rhythm of the [Taiwanese] language, but he also uses its imagery to inform many other compositional decisions.”

The work is divided into several sections based on four poems by Min-Yung Lee, whose writing stands as a witness to events, reflecting the artist’s social, as well as artistic, responsibilities. The composer and poet met in 1987, at a time when Taiwan was still under martial law; Lee had traveled to Vancouver, B.C., and Hsiao had been living in exile in the U.S. for the previous ten years, blacklisted for his political activities in support of Taiwanese democracy.

Ilha Formosa opens with two short instrumental preludes, the first featuring beautifully braided melodies, and the second, a brief percussion interlude—the language of each reflects deep traditions of Taiwanese music. The first vocal movement is a funeral procession, taking up directly from the timpani prelude and sung with increasing resolve by the chorus. The narrative is punctuated by cadenzas, after which the second movement opens with a speech-like section derived from the intonations of the Taiwanese language—thus its elemental quality, blossoming in power and intensity. The third movement is a march led by percussion and brass, which grows and then fades away, as if the procession is passing in front of us. The final movement is a dignified and flowing anthem, with lush orchestral writing and a contrasting section of aboriginal Taiwanese melodic motifs, again reflecting the diversity of the population and its musical heritage.

Ilha Formosa premiered in the National Concert Hall in Taipei on July 2, 2001 (with Julia in the choir!)—a powerful statement not only musically, but politically. It has since been given in many concert halls throughout the world, but our performance here in Seattle, guided by Julia’s deep research and insights into the work, gives it special meaning.


Shui-Long Ma (1939‒2015) was born in Keelung, Taiwan. He graduated from National Taiwan University of Arts in 1964, and in 1972, he received a full scholarship to study at the Regensburg Music Academy in Germany with Dr. Oskar Sigmund; he graduated with honors in 1975. He was twice the recipient of the Golden Tripod Award, and was also given the Sun Yat-Sen Music Creation Award and the Wu San-Lien Award. His more than one hundred compositions, including orchestral, chamber, and choral and vocal works, are performed frequently around the world. His Bamboo Flute Concerto was performed in 1983 for a PBS broadcast by the National Symphony Orchestra conducted by Mstislav Rostropovich at the National Dr. Sun Yat-Sen Memorial Hall. In 1986 he won a Fulbright Award to do research at New York’s Lincoln Center and to perform his work throughout the U.S., and he received a Council for Cultural Affairs Grant in 1994 to study and give lectures at Yale, Harvard, and Northern Illinois University. He won the third National Award for Arts in Music in 1999, and in the following year, he was included in Grove’s Dictionary of Music and Musicians and received the Presidential order of Brilliant Star with Grand Cordon. In 2007, he was awarded honorary doctorate degrees by National Taiwan University and National Taipei University of the Arts, and he was also given the Executive Yuan Cultural Award.

Born in Taiwan in 1957, Gordon Chin has established himself as a prolific and sought-after composer. Chin’s output includes four symphonies, a cantata, an opera, three concertos for violin, and concertos for cello and for piano, in addition to a Double Concerto for Violin and Cello and the Triple Concerto on our program; he has also written numerous choral and chamber works, five percussion quartets, and various pieces for solo instruments. Chin spent his teenage years in Japan, and earned his doctoral degree from Eastman School of Music under the tutelage of Samuel Adler, Warren Benson, and Christopher Rouse. He has received commissions from major ensembles and institutions in North America, Asia, and Europe; his works have been presented at international festivals including Tong Yeong International Music Festival, Manchester International Cello Festival, Aspen Music Festival, Wrocław Music Festival, Great Mountain Music Festival, and, most recently, the Klara Festival in Brussels.

An album featuring Chin’s Formosa Seasons and his Double Concerto for Violin, Cello, and Orchestra, conducted by Michael Stern with Cho-Liang Lin and Felix Fan as soloists, was released by Naxos in 2007; the same label produced a second album, with his Symphony No. 3 and Cello Concerto No. 1, conducted by Shao-Chia Lu with Wen-Sinn Yang as cello soloist, in 2015. Chin currently serves as Music Director of YinQi Symphony Orchestra and Chorus in Taipei and is a faculty member at the National Taiwan Normal University.

Tyzen Hsiao (1938‒2015) was born in Kaohsiung, Taiwan. He graduated from the National Taiwan Normal University in 1963, and in 1965 moved to Japan for two years to study at the Musashino Academia Musicae, where he enrolled in courses in piano and composition. The first “Hsiao Tyzen Night” featuring performances of his music took place in 1975 at Zhongshan Hall, Taipei. In 1977, due to difficult personal circumstances, Hsiao moved to the United States, where he stayed for eighteen years, during which time he earned a master’s degree in composition at UCLA. The Taiwanese American Foundation named Hsiao a Humanity Award Laureate in 1989, and his Prelude for Organ won the California Music Teachers Association Composition Competition in 1991. Hsiao was awarded Taiwan’s National Art Prize (2004), the Wu Sam-lien Musical Contribution Award (2005), the Kaohsiung City Prize for the Arts (2006), and the National Cultural Award (2009). Hsiao also had a successful career as a pianist and conductor.

Hsiao’s rich tonal style earned him an international reputation as “Taiwan’s Rachmaninov.” His compositions include works for solo and chamber ensembles and large-scale pieces for orchestras and choirs. His chamber output includes works for piano four hands, string quartets, and piano quintets, and he has written many art songs and choral pieces. Hsiao’s most widely performed symphonic works include the oratorio Jesus Christ (1971), Formosa Symphony, op. 49 (1987), Violin Concerto in D, op. 50 (1988), Cello Concerto in C, op. 52 (1990), Piano Concerto in C minor, op. 53 (1992), 1947 Overture for soprano, chorus, and orchestra (1993), Ode to Yu-Shan (Jade Mountain) (1999), and Ilha Formosa: Requiem for Formosa’s Martyrs (2001). He credited Rachmaninov, Bartók, and Chopin as important influences on his style, along with Presbyterian hymnody and, above all, Taiwanese folk music. His compositions are a musical manifestation of the larger movement that revitalized Taiwan’s literary and performing arts in the 1970s and 1980s.