“Edmonton means a lot to Vivian Fung, the JUNO Award-winning composer who lives in California. She grew up here, after all, and it was in Edmonton where her gift as a composer and interest in the cello first emerged.
On Saturday and Sunday afternoons, the Edmonton Symphony Orchestra’s principal cellist, Rafael Hoekman, will perform Humanoid, Fung’s first major composition for solo cello and electronics. The Canadian premiere isn’t taking place in a concert hall or auditorium, but on the roof of her parents’ building on Alberta Avenue, home to a catering business for years. The performance is part of the Kaleido Family Arts Festival, which runs from today until Sunday.
Fung started composing when she was very young, at about age seven or eight. She insists she wasn’t a precocious child, just one keen on evading piano practice. She played made-up melodies (so her mother would think she was practicing) and imagined stories to go with them. Luckily, her first teacher was a composer who encouraged this habit and taught her how to notate music.
While in Edmonton, she studied composition with Violet Archer — and, for a few years, cello with Colin Ryan, then the ESO’s principal cellist. Again, her dislike of practicing revealed itself. Because she didn’t practice enough, she failed to develop necessary calluses on her fingers, which sometimes bled. Instead of forcing her to play more, Ryan introduced her to recordings of great cellists playing famous pieces. Though she doesn’t limit herself to composing for strings, she’s felt at home doing so ever since.
After graduating from Archbishop MacDonald High School, Fung moved to New York City to study at Julliard. She went on to earn a doctorate in composition at Julliard and teach at the school.
After moving to the Bay area, she wrote a violin concerto about experiencing a winter without snow for the first time. Memories from looking out her window in Edmonton and seeing snow falling strongly influenced Violin Concerto No. 2, Of Snow and Ice, which premiered in February of 2015 at the Toronto Symphony Orchestra’s New Creations Festival.
In Humanoid, the cellist faces off against a machine. In the first section of the piece, the cello reacts to machine-like electronic sounds, almost becoming a machine itself. The second section is more peaceful, with manipulated voice recordings of Fung singing and her young son speaking. During that section, “the machine takes on a human quality,” she explained. “It’s lush and beautiful.” In the third section, the cellist becomes almost superhuman as he faces off against the machine, playing extremely quickly and skillfully to keep up with the drum beat.
Christy Morin, Arts on the Ave’s executive director, proposed the rooftop setting during a conversation with Fung about the piece.
“I thought it was a fabulous idea,” the composer said.
“My work has been played in bars and clubs, but never on a rooftop.”
Humanoid debuted in New Orleans in August and received a standing ovation.
It will make its way to Vancouver in November, then to cities in Ontario and the United States.
Fung will be in attendance for the Sunday performance (9130 118 Ave.) at 3:30 p.m. The Saturday performance is at 2:30 p.m. Both performances are free to the public.
Fung said she’s happy to see the Alberta Avenue neighbourhood undergoing a revitalization and glad to be part of the festival.
“Kaleido is so great because it kind of gets rid of the fussiness and stuffiness of what classical music can be,” she said.”
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