Thirteen Strings: Composer Alice Ping Yee Ho’s Quest is a search for meaningful music

Alice Ping Yee Ho. Photo: Bo Huang

Twice nominated for a JUNO award, Hong Kong born Canadian composer and pianist Alice Ping Yee Ho has become known for her “distinctly individual” musical style. She writes in many different genres and for many different ensembles. Her piece Quest will get its Ottawa premiere next week in the Thirteen Strings Christmas Candlelight concert. Before the show she answered some questions from ARTSFILE about her music.

Q. How did you come to music?

A. I came to music at a very early age when I took ballet class and piano lessons back in Hong Kong. Basically I grew up with classical music.

Q. Can you tell me about your career as a composer? 

A. I am a Chinese Canadian composer and a classically trained pianist. I have written works in many genres including operas, theatres, orchestras, chamber ensembles, dance and film. I am a twice Juno nominee, a recipient of Dora Mavor Moore Award (2013 outstanding original opera) and a Louis Applebaum Award (2016). My works have been performed by major ensembles including the China National Symphony, Shanghai Philharmonic Orchestra, the Finnish Lapland Chamber Orchestra, Polish Radio Choir, the Toronto, Vancouver, Winnipeg, Victoria and Windsor Symphonies.”

Q. Has it been fulfilling?

A. Yes, it has been. Composing allows me to bring beauty and attain peace. I am also very fortunate that throughout my career I have many wonderful collaborations with different artists and performing groups. Especially in recent years I have had opportunities to create unique projects with artists of different disciplines and cultural heritage to create cross cultural operas and dance theatre works. When I start a new piece, I like to involve the musicians to discuss theme and  subjects, I like to consult their technical ability, so that I have an understanding of their specialty to showcase in the new work. After that I like to be left alone to write the work, so I can concentrate and consolidate my artistic exploration and vision. After the piece is done, I love to work with the musicians in rehearsal, answering questions and guiding them in the music interpretation.

What guides me might be as simple as experiencing something beautiful in life: nature, art, poetry, movie, music, anything that inspires me and that I can transform into music. Sometimes audience reaction or critics in the press can also be something I  learn from.

When I am composing, I am entering an exciting territory. I am in charge of building a musical structure with logic but guided by my imagination and emotions, it is my desire always to create something special to myself and the audience. Guess my intellect and experiences in life influences my music in the pursuit of idealism and beauty.

Q. Can you talk about the piece Quest being played on Dec. 4 by Thirteen Strings

A. This is not written especially for Thirteen Strings, however I am really excited Kevin Mallon has programmed the work for its Ottawa premiere. It is an amazing string ensemble. The work was originally written for the University of Toronto music school’s string ensemble through the Nurman Burgess Memorial Fund — New Music for Young Musicians. It was commissioned by the Canadian Music Centre.

Q. Tell me about Quest.

A. The title signifies exploration and motivation. The work was written to stimulate young string players to try different bowing techniques, to play expressively and to tackle various rhythmic skills, also exposing them to special string effects and sonorities.  The duration is about seven to eight minutes. In this work, the audience will hear two parts: an expressive slow introduction and a dance like energetic movement. The idea of the work is largely based on the theme of positive energy and bravery against adversities, at the same time expresses a young person’s expeditions and dreams.

Q. Your piece is paired with Bach’s Magnificat. Do they fit together?

A. My piece will be a contrasting work in terms of genre, instrumentation, duration and colour, though it, in some ways, carries a similar message to Bach’s Magnificat by conveying an idealistic human spirit.

Q. What’s next for you?

A. I have a few commissions lined up including a 30-minute percussion theatre work based on the life of Yoko Ono for Beverley Johnston; a 15-minute piece for violin and cello for violinist Akemi Mercer-Niewoehner and (NAC Orchestra principal) cellist Rachel Mercer; a new work for the Hamilton Philharmonic Orchestra’s 2019-2020 season and I am producing my fifth solo CD on the Centrediscs/Naxos label which will record my children’s opera The Monkiest King with the Canadian Children’s Opera Company next spring at the Glenn Gould Studio. 

Thirteen Strings presents Christmas Candlelight
Where: Dominion Chalmer United Church
When: Dec. 4 at 7:30 p.m.
Tickets and information:

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Peter Robb began his connection with the arts community in Ottawa in the mid-1980s when he was the administrator and public relations director of the Great Canadian Theatre Company. After a long career in journalism with the Ottawa Citizen where he served in a number of different posts he returned to the arts when he became the Citizen's arts editor.