Mr. Sheng’s 2001 MacArthur “genius” grant propelled him into an elite circle of globally famous Chinese composers. His peers include Tan Dun, an Oscar-winner for the “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon” soundtrack, also with a premiere at New York’s Metropolitan Opera to his name; Chen Qigang, a student of the late French composer Olivier Messiaen who returned from Paris to oversee music for Beijing’s 2008 Olympics; and Zhou Long, winner of this year’s Pulitzer Prize for music.
China’s cultural commissars dangle plum opportunities—like star turns in Olympic pageantry, lavish commissions, or prestigious academic perches—to entice such luminaries to return, and many do. “It’s certainly true that the pull of working in China is very strong. I consider myself a patriot, and I feel a bit guilty for leaving China and living in the West [during the] thirty years of economic reform,” explained Mr. Sheng, who now teaches full-time at the University of Michigan.
So why is his workshop based at a 20-year-old [Hong Kong] science university with no music department, in a city pegged as a cultural laggard? Why not the warm embrace of a prestigious Chinese conservatory?
Mr. Sheng is blunt: “Well, you don’t have to bribe anyone here. We can focus only on quality, nothing else.” The political undertow of life in the mainland often takes a toll on musicians and other artists.