Although she still sits on the concert piano bench from time to time, these days you’re more likely to find Alice Ping Yee Ho in the composer’s chair, engaged in research, or fine-tuning her latest commissioned work. Over the past several years, she’s produced a truly astonishing array of notable intimate and large-scale works that reveal a collaborative spirit, an ambitious talent – and most importantly, a curious mind.
Many of the Toronto composer’s commissions have led to further collaborations. Ocean Child, for soprano and orchestra, won the composition competition that was launched last year by the PEI Symphony, as part of a series of festivities commemorating the 150th anniversary of the Charlottetown Conference. Mark Shapiro, the symphony’s music director, now has the composer working on a piece for Cantori New York, the acclaimed chamber chorus he’s directed for 25 years.
“I look back into my own culture. I find new sounds and new ways to communicate to the audience.”
The original texts for Ocean Child were written by Toronto theatre artist Marjorie Chan, whom Ho first worked with on The Lesson of Da Jing, the 2013 Dora Mavor Moore Award winner for Outstanding New Opera. Originally commissioned by Toronto Masque Theatre, the opera tells a hot revisionist version of a classic tale about Da Jing, the chief concubine of King Zhou, who has an ill-fated love affair with a music teacher.
“This opera was a big turning point for me because it uses Chinese instruments (pipa, erhu, and guzheng) intensely, alongside traditional Baroque instruments, which is new combination in opera,” says Ho, who grew up in Hong Kong, earned a Bachelor of Music degree in Composition from Indiana University, then moved to Toronto – where she received a master of music degree from the University of Toronto and put down roots.
“As a younger composer, I was into my individualism, but in the last 10 years, living in this multicultural city, I’ve had opportunities to do research into Chinese music and instruments,” continues Ho, who’s also had pieces commissioned and performed by notable Chinese ensembles in recent years. “Through these works, I look back into my own culture. I find new sounds and new ways to communicate to the audience, yet the music always reflects my own style. It’s important to me that audience experience these new sounds in ways that aren’t superficial, but rather in work that has depth.”
As the composer on Bridge of One Hair (2007), a massive three-year collaborative performance-installation piece linking diverse communities in Etobicoke, Ho dug into the music and storytelling of Somalia and Ireland. “It was so exciting and challenging for me to hear and work with people and ideas outside my own artistic life,” she recalls.
Ho, it seems, is always up for a challenge. In late May 2015, she helmed a three-day recording session of The Lesson of Da Jing at Toronto’s Music Gallery, which was followed by a public concert performance. “Producing was a new experience for me, and a little bit scary,” she laughs. “But I needed to be in control, because I have thought so much about what my ears desire to hear.” The recording will be released later this year on Centrediscs/Naxos, which last year released Glistening Pianos, a disc of Ho’s compositions for duo piano; the title piece received a 2015 JUNO Award nomination for Classical Composition of the Year.