UMKC professor wins Pulitzer for music

KANSAS CITY, Mo. (AP) — A Chinese-born composer who was sent to drive a tractor in the countryside during the radical Cultural Revolution was awarded the Pulitzer Prize in music Monday for a piece that draws on a Chinese folk tale and blends the musical traditions of the East and the West.

Zhou Long, a research professor of music composition at the University of Missouri-Kansas City’s Conservatory of Music and Dance, received the prize for his opera, “Madame White Snake.” The opera premiered Feb. 26, 2010, by the Boston Opera at the Cutler Majestic Theatre.

Zhou, the son of a fine arts professor and Western-trained soprano, began piano lessons at an early age. But for five years during the decade-long rampage of violence and radical communism led by Mao Zedong’s youthful Red Guards, he was sent to a state farm to grow wheat, beans and corn.

After injuring his back lifting, he was reassigned to become the musical arranger for a song dance troupe near inner Mongolia. It was there that he first encountered clarinets and cellos alongside traditional Chinese instruments, according to the Carnegie Hall web site.

As the Cultural Revolution and its effort to enforce conformity ended in 1976, educational institutions began to reopen. Zhou and his wife, Chen Yi, became part of Beijing Central Conservatory’s “Class of 1978,” the first generation of Chinese composers to study and listen to Western music in a decade.

Peter Witte, the dean of UMKC’s Conservatory, calls Long and his wife “one of the great compositional couples in the history of music.”

The Kansas City Symphony will debut one of Chen Yi’s compositions during its first season in the soon-to-open Kauffman Center for the Performing Arts. A performance of Zhou’s “Madame White Snake” has not yet been scheduled there.

“We certainly hope that this Pulitzer prize energizes that next step,” Witte said.

Calls to Zhou Long and Chen Yi, who also teaches composition at UMKC’s Conservatory, weren’t immediately returned.

Witte said the school is going to pat itself and Zhou on the back and then celebrate in the coming days.

“We have a nationally significant program and a brilliant set of composers who are setting a path not only for composition in our day but through the students we have in our conservatory for years ahead,” Witte said. “It’s a national treasure.”

Besides the Pulitzer, Zhou also has received fellowships from the American Academy of Arts and Letters, the National Endowment for the Arts, and the Guggenheim and Rockefeller Foundations. His awards include winning the Barlow International Competition, with a performance by the Los Angeles Philharmonic.

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