Joining the company of 22 other intellectuals on the cutting edge of their respective fields, Bright Sheng, a professor in the School of Music and world-renowned composer, was awarded a prestigious MacArthur fellowship earlier this week.

Paul Wong
University Music Prof. Bright Sheng, recipient of the prestigious MacArthur fellowship, practices the piano yesterday afternoon<br><br>DAVID ROCHKIND/Daily

The fellowships, awarded by the Chicago-based John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation, consists of a $500,000 no strings attached stipend paid in quarterly installments over the course of five years. The fellows are nominated by an anonymous committee and don”t know they are being considered for the award until they receive it.

Sheng said he was in Washington preparing a concert when he received the call on his cell phone.

“I had been given notice by the Dean that I was about to receive an important phone call,” he said. “I had no clue. It was a complete surprise.”

Sheng said he has no specific plans for the award money yet, but wants to spend time in Europe practicing his French.

Music Dean Karen Wolff said the award is an honor, both for Sheng and the University.

“Bright Sheng has established himself as one of America”s foremost composers. It is a source of great pride that he is a member of the U-M School of Music faculty,” Wolff said. “Not only have his compositional efforts been recognized internationally, but he also has served as one of the preeminent teachers of young and upcoming musicians. We have found him to be a source of expert knowledge and information.”

Sheng is currently working on two major compositions. One is a full length opera based on the story of Madame Mao, the wife of the Chinese revolutionary who gained notice for her defiant behavior in a culture that severely restricts the role of women. The other project is a quadruple concerto for the New York Philharmonic”s celebration of the 20th anniversary debut of cellist Yo Yo Ma and pianist Emanuel Ax, premiering in 2003.

Sheng is known for a unique combination of Western and Eastern cultural influence in his musical compositions. He extensively studied the two cultures until he was able to merge the two musically.

“The music is deeply rooted in the foundation of both cultures but is a new hybrid art,” Sheng said.

Chinese instruments are traditionally solo instruments, and not made to play in a large ensemble, so Sheng said he must face this challenge when creating his music. But he said he turns that seeming disadvantage into an advantage.

“If you make it a handicap it won”t work, but if you look at it and take the idea as part of the initial inception before you start writing, you can build ideas around that fact,” Sheng said.

Sheng”s music has been performed in countries around the world, including Italy, Germany, China, Russia, Finland, Spain, Japan, Singapore and Taiwan.

Sheng, who was born in 1955 in Shanghai, began his musical career studying piano with his mother at the age of four. He studied folk music during the Chinese Cultural Revolution and worked as a pianist and percussionist in a folk music and dance troupe. After moving to New York in 1982, he attended Queens College and later Columbia University. He joined the University in 1995.

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