Donna Weng Friedman counters ‘mindless intolerance’ with music

Donna Weng Friedman counters ‘mindless intolerance’ with music
Miranda Cuckson performs live at the 2015 Look & Listen Festival. Photo: Steven Schreiber.

Donna Weng Friedman speaks to ALL ARTS about her new virtual concert series “Heritage and Harmony,” which celebrates musicians of Asian descent

As Asian Pacific American Heritage Month comes to a close, WQXR is launching an initiative to highlight notable Asian composers and to raise awareness about “mindless intolerance.”

Created by classical pianist Donna Weng Friedman in collaboration with WQXR, the project is titled “Heritage and Harmony” and brings together 10 musicians of Asian descent to play pieces from composers of their choice. The resulting videos are shared on the WQXR website, where they can be streamed at any time starting May 28.

“I don’t think there’s even been a concert quite like this,” Weng Friedman said in a statement. “This concert is a chance to bring people together through the unifying power of music, ranging from traditional pieces to compelling contemporary compositions, all performed by an amazing group of artists.”

The participants include Christopher Tin, Yoobin Son, Conrad Tao, Stefan Jackiw, Jon Kimura Parker, Mariko Anraku, Yunah Lee, Soo Bae, Miranda Cuckson and Anthony Cheung. Weng Friedman also offers an entry into the series. (Her choice? “Space Between the Fish and the Moon” from Chinary Ung’s “Seven Mirrors.”)

To mark the launch of the video series, ALL ARTS spoke with Weng Friedman about her inspiration for the project, how it came together and what we can do to carry the message forward.

Can you explain the concept behind the “Heritage and Harmony” virtual concert?

May is Asian Pacific American Heritage Month, and we are celebrating with “Heritage and Harmony,” an online virtual concert video series, featuring a number of leading musicians of Asian descent performing works by noted composers of Asian backgrounds, as well as traditional Asian music.

Each video begins with the featured musician offering reflections on their heritage and their connection to the composer and the piece they’ve chosen to play, followed by a performance of the selected piece. Three of the composers featured in the concert — Conrad Tao, Andrew Cheung and Christopher Tin — also share their perspective on music and cultural identity.

How did you go about gathering together the artists featured?

I know so many incredibly talented musicians of Asian descent, from either performing together with them in concert, studying together at Juilliard, or some other musical connection. The trickiest part was keeping it down to 10 performing artists!

From the very start, however, I knew that I wanted to feature as many different types of musical instruments as possible, for variety of sound, style and presentation. I am delighted with the way it turned out — among the violinists and pianists we have a flutist, harpist, soprano and cellist. All world-class musicians!

I mentioned looking for variety in styles; well, one of our featured performers is two-time Grammy-Award winning composer Christopher Tin, who writes music for concerts, film and video games!

What advantages (or disadvantages) did you find in putting together this initiative virtually?

The biggest challenge for all of us was in the actual recording of the music. Since we have all been sheltering-in-place, most of us had to use our phones to record the videos, so the sound quality is definitely not what we are used to. And for us pianists, well, our pianos have not been tuned in months. I actually have two broken strings in my piano (you can see them sticking out of my piano if you look carefully in the video). Miraculously, the piece I perform, with all of its millions of notes, skips over the ones with the broken strings!

But the truth is, this project was never about being perfect. From the very beginning, it was more about making human connections through the unifying power of music and storytelling during this very difficult time.

You mention that the concert is a “reminder of the need to stand together against mindless intolerance.” What role does music play in aiding in this effort?

They always say that music is the universal language, and I stand by that. Music allows us to feel emotions and tell stories that cannot always be put into words, and yet can be understood by anyone who takes the time to listen. But I also thought it was important for the musicians to share some of their personal stories about their heritage as well.

As author Chimamanda Adichie states in her TED Talk “The Danger of a Single Story”: “The single story creates stereotypes, and the problem with stereotypes is not that they are untrue, but that they are incomplete. They make one story become the only story.”

The recent rise in assaults against Asians stems from that single story of a cruel and deadly virus originating in China. So, WQXR and I wanted to change that single-story narrative by inviting a number of outstanding classical musicians of Asian descent to share their stories through their words and — of course — their music.

How do we carry this message forward beyond this virtual concert?

Hopefully, with reflection, kindness, empathy and respect.

And, of course, music!

This interview has been slightly edited.

Top Image: Miranda Cuckson performs live at the 2015 Look & Listen Festival. Photo: Steven Schreiber.