Music is in the blood for composer Gang Situ, whose mother was a mezzo-soprano with the Shanghai Opera and whose father was the music director and conductor of the Shanghai Philharmonic. Born in 1954 in Shanghai, Situ studied piano and violin at an early age. But as a teenager, Situ — whose given name means “steel” — was swept up in China’s Cultural Revolution and was sent for a four-year “reeducation” that found him harvesting rice and gathering firewood in the countryside. Ironically, the experience would indirectly bolster his love of music, as he and his fellow workers would secretly listen to banned recordings of Western artists, such as David Oistrakh playing Tchaikovsky’s Violin Concerto.
In 1985, Situ arrived in the United States. He had only $40 to his name and spoke only a few words of English. By 1994, just nine years later, he had attracted notice as a composer with his Double Concerto for Violin and Erhu, which has since been performed by more than a dozen orchestras around the world, including the San Francisco Symphony.
Situ’s work embraces the mix of different cultures, finding common ground between what is traditionally thought of as Eastern and Western. In his 1997 “San Francisco Suite,” premiered by the San Francisco Symphony, he created solos for Chinese, Japanese, South American and African American jazz instruments as a way of acknowledging San Francisco’s own multifaceted musical traditions.
A composer of original works for dance as well as orchestra, chorus and chamber, Situ writes music that is not only a reflection of his dual background, but also a meeting ground, a merging of cultural sensibilities. Finding a way toward a natural fusion has been the underlying theme of many of his works, including his 1997 “Common Ground” – created for Dimensions Dance Theater and Lily Cai Chinese Dance as a response to the riots that took place after the 1992 Rodney King trial in Los Angeles – which explored the connection between Chinese and African themes.
Spark visits with Gang Situ in rehearsal as he imaginatively bridges cultures and time periods with “The Grand Seducers,” an opera that melds Western and Eastern conventions while telling the tale of two notorious womanizers: Mozart’s Don Giovanni and Xi-men Qing, the rakish protagonist of the 13th-century Song Dynasty novel “Water Margin Heroes.”