An Inspired Premiere

When mezzo-soprano Sun-Ly Pierce (’19, ’20, ’21) and pianist Chien-Lin Lu (’14, ’15, ’19) take the stage in Hahn Hall on Thursday, November 18, it will be moment years in the making. Winners of the 2019 Marilyn Horne Song Competition, Sun-Ly and Chien-Lin were slated to perform this recital in the spring of 2020, but the COVID-19 pandemic put those plans on hold. Now after more than three years since they stood together in Hahn Hall as newly minted competition winners, Sun-Ly and Chien-Lin will finally get their long-awaited moment.

Mezzo-soprano Sun-Ly Pierce and pianist Chien-Lin Lu
At top: composer Jennifer Higdon

November 18 will also feature another long-awaited moment: the premiere of Pulitzer prize- and Grammy-award-winning composer Jennifer Higdon’s song cycle, Wise Moon. Commissioned by the Music Academy for Sun-Ly and Chien-Lin, Wise Moon is the culmination of a project that dates back to that evening in August of 2019 when the two were announced as winners of the Marilyn Horne Song Competition. Higdon served as a judge for that competition, which allowed her the opportunity to hear firsthand the artistry of the musicians for whom she would be composing.

And their performances clearly resonated with Higdon. “Something that stood out to me with both Sun-Ly and Chien-Lin was their exquisite musicality,” she recalls. “There’s a magic there that’s hard to verbally define, so I wanted to use my music to give a little window to show off that magic.” But the focus on the specific performers didn’t stop there. “After the Summer Festival ended in 2019, Sun-Ly sent me a video of a recital she’d done at Bard College, which gave me a chance to hear even more of her singing than I had in the Marilyn Horne Song Competition. It was incredible to listen to all the colors of her voice.”

One unique aspect of the Marilyn Horne Song Competition is the equal focus placed on both singer and pianist. It’s appropriate, then, that Higdon’s musical approach in Wise Moon was similarly equitable. “This piece is really like a duet between the pianist and the singer,” Higdon says of Wise Moon. “When I heard Chien-Lin perform, his playing was so beautiful and so controlled that I was inspired to write a song cycle with a piano part that is very involved. It feels much more symphonic to me.”

While the musical inspiration behind Wise Moon came from Higdon’s up-close-and-personal experiences with the artistry of Sun-Ly and Chien-Lin, the thematic inspiration came from a more, shall we say, distant source. “I look up at the moon a lot, and I was thinking about how it’s always present and has pushed humanity to dreaming.” Consisting of settings of moon-inspired poems by five different poets, Wise Moon is a musical representation of the “little world” of each poem. “In a sense every song is like its own little celestial body. As a composer, you’re trying to create a world that fits that poem and that moment in time.”

But while she may be looking toward the heavens, in the end Higdon’s still feet remain firmly rooted in her more earthbound muses: Sun-Ly Pierce and Chien-Lin Lu. “When you get really good musicians performing your works it creates a spark of inspiration to push hard to create a distinct world for each poem.”

– Henry Michaels
Project Resonance Blog editor, Director of Audience Experience & Engagement, Music Academy of the West