Du Yun, Present Music’s Wherehouse diva
Divas, Dudes and Dancers is the title of Present Music’s season finale, set for 6 and 9 p.m. shows at The Wherehouse Friday night (June 18).
Artistic director Kevin Stalheim delivered on all three points. Dancers (Kelly Anderson), check; Dudes (composer Chris Burns, choreographer Luc Vanier), check. Double check Kelly Anderson as a diva, and Robin Pluer has been a jazz-pop diva for quite a while. Stalheim put composer Du Yun in the diva category, too. He saw Du’s picture on her MySpace page, and it didn’t seem like a stretch.
The composer wasn’t so sure about that at an interview Thursday afternoon.
“That’s just publicity,” Du said.
“It’s not!” Stalheim replied. “You have that spiked, dyed hair!”
Stalheim was disappointed that Du left her diva outfits, including the hair, at home in New York. At the end of the interview, she and Stalheim considered rummaging through old Skylight Opera Theatre costume (PM is a Skylight tenant at the Broadway Theatre Center) in search of divawear.
She’ll probably dress with composerly respectability at the concert, but the fact that this was an issue at all reveals something. All season long, Stalheim has been bringing in composers and groups who possess both scholarly and dance-club cred. Du is among them.
It’s all getting very blurry, in New York and elsewhere, which was the premise behind Stalheim’s 2009-2010 agenda.
Du is a tiny woman with a big presence, a great sense of humor and a quick wit. She is also a formidable pianist and multi-instrumentalist.
She started piano at 4, in Shanghai.
“The teacher in my kindergarten played the organ,” she recalled. “I would just stand there and stare at it. I begged my parents for a piano and some lessons.”
She got them, but her parents gave her a little more than she bargained for. They pushed her to practice for hours. At age 6, she got into the pre-college program of the Shanghai Conservatory.
“It was like being a Juilliard kid,” she said. “It’s so competitive… you have no idea.”
She was on the road to becoming a concert pianist, until an odd and fateful change of course at age 11.
“I had asthma and a very fast heart rate because of it,” Du said. “That made me tend to play faster and faster, but my fingers couldn’t keep up with my brain.”
At a student recital, her racing fingers and brain tangled in a Beethoven sonata. She took a wrong turn going into the recapitulation and got lost. Du kept playing, but just made stuff up.
“I was too afraid to stop,” she said, in a breathless retelling. “I stunned the piano faculty.
“I thought that I would be physically beaten for doing that, or at least yelled at. But my teacher just said, ‘Whoa, I have no idea how you did that. Maybe you should be a composer.'”
A few months later, she wrote a suite for piano. A few years later, she was studying composition at Oberlin College and then earned a Ph.D in composition at Harvard. Now she’s one of the hottest young genre-bending composers in New York. Du teaches at SUNY-Purchase, plays in the prestigious ICE new-music ensemble and keeps up with her many commissions.
Du looks 23; she turns 33 Friday, but don’t let that get around.
“There are so many opportunities for composers under 30, and critics play that game, too,” she said. “They’re always looking for the next thing, the next hipster. I’m super aware that I’m that right now, but that’s here and gone.”
She will have that Harvard Ph.D to fall back on. Du is at work on commissions from the Detroit Symphony and an all-strings piece for the Berkeley Symphony.
“The Berkeley piece will be about melisma,” she said. “I was in Egypt, and heard the chants from minarets all around. It’s like you’re besieged by melisma. That’s what I want to do with this piece.”
And she’ll have the diva thing to fall back on. She posed glamorously at one point during the interview, to conjure up the extravagant hat and glittering opera glove she’d worn in a recent show in New York.
Too bad we won’t see that in Milwaukee.
“No,” she said, “I didn’t even bring my glitter.”
The Program: Steve Reich’s New York Counterpoint (1985); Antonio Caldara’s Sebben, crudele (1710), arr. by Nathan Wesselowski, with dancer Kelly Anderson; Du Yun’s Air Glow (2006, rev. 2009), Dream-Bend (2008) and Miranda (2009); Christopher Burns‘ Fetish Object (2010) with choreography (Love’s Fodder) by Luc Vanier danced by Jaimi Patterson and Steven Moses; and Gabriel Prokofiev’s String Quartet No. 1 (2003, second and fourth movements) and String Quartet No. 2 (2006, fourth movement). Before the concert: Free snow cones and popcorn. Between the concerts: Chanteuse Robyn Pluer and accordionist Stas Venglevski. After the concerts: Fire Sirens, DJ music, Polish Fest Fireworks.,
Concert Info: Start times are 6 p.m. and 9 p.m. Friday, June 18, at the Wherehouse, 818 S. Water St. Tickets are $9.99. Call Present Music, 414-271-0711.