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Bitter Cold Night

Virus whistleblower tribute marks the start of NZ Music Month

A Gisborne audience heard live for the first time last year pianist Tony Chen Lin perform Daydream, a piano suite Lin had commissioned Chinese-New Zealand composer Gao Ping to write.

Coinciding with the launch on Friday of NZ Music Month, was the New Zealand premiere of a recording of a new work by Gao Ping. A duet for piano and violin, Ping's Bitter Cold Night is a tribute to Dr Li Wenliang, the whistleblower of Covid-19 and one of the first victims of the virus.

On December 30, Li Wenliang sent a message to a group of fellow doctors warning them about a possible outbreak of an illness that resembled severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS) in Wuhan where he worked, reports The Lancet.

“I realised it was out of my control and I would probably be punished,” said the doctor when he saw his message had been shared.

Days later, he was summoned to the Public Security Bureau in Wuhan and made to sign a statement in which he was accused of making false statements that disturbed the public order.

Dr Li Wenliang died seven days after the World Health Organisation declared on January 30 that the coronavirus was a global emergency.

Gao Ping had been based in his hometown of Chengdu, China, for more than three months since the Covid-19 outbreak.

“On the sixth of February, like most other Chinese people, I was glued to my hand-phone, keeping up with the news of Dr Li Wenliang, in Wuhan, who was struggling for his life,” said the composer in his video.

Dr Li Wenliang was one of the first to warn people of the virus and one of the first to die of it.

Music inspired by Dr Li Wenliang who tried to warn of the virus

“The news that night kept me awake and very unsettled and very sad; angry and confused but also inspired in a very powerful way because to know such a person is there is a strength, a comfort, for us to do something.”

The next day, he decided to document the feeling of that night in sound and began composing Bitter Cold Night.

“On that same day, the seventh of February, there was a photo online in China, passed around like crazy, and a very beautiful image of someone writing in huge Chinese characters on a snow covered riverbank, the words ‘Farewell to Dr Li Wenliang,” said Gao Ping.

“And it was so beautiful . . . I thought that is exactly what I am doing in music for him.”

Gao Ping made these notes in his journal, writes RNZ concert presenter, Eva Radich: “. . . moving but with pauses and hesitation, as if searching for an answer, the music travels with difficulty . . . long melody . . . restraint, solitary, chilly, and calm.”

The work is in memory of the doctor, said Gao Ping.

“I am well aware that, during this difficult period, a thousand pieces of music may not be worth even a single face mask. Perhaps, a time long in the future, when the music starts to play, some of us will remember that extraordinary night of February 6, 2020.”

Gao Ping said life in Chengdu had been very quiet for three months but in the last few weeks people started going outside again, but were taking personal protection very seriously, reports Radich.

“I live near a plaza where a great number of people used to dance in groups every evening. For a long time in the past months, it was deserted, a depressing sight. I felt very sorry, although the music from the loudspeakers used to annoy me too.

“Just the other day, I passed by there again, and was nearly moved to tears by the return of the dancers, rejoicing in their rhythmic movements, all wearing masks!”

We made a day trip to the countryside, a beautiful day, and indeed the sun shined on us.”

The SOUNZ Centre for New Zealand Music worked remotely with violinist Amalia Hall and pianist Stephen De Pledge who performed the work in their respective homes. Their performance of Bitter Cold Night can be viewed on YouTube via this shortcut, https://tinyurl.com/ycb7suqe

PANDEMIC RESPONSE: Coinciding with the launch of New Zealand Music Month was a SOUNZ film streamed on YouTube of two New Zealand musicians' performance of Chinese-New Zealand composer Gao Ping's new work, Bitter Cold Night, a tribute to Covid-19 whistleblower, Dr Li Wenliang.Picture by Fang Xiang