P.Q. Phan honored with 1997 Rome Prize

By Melissa Mitchell

When in Rome later this year, UI music professor P.Q. Phan likely will be conducting himself more like the lead character in "Amadeus" than the star of "Roman Holiday."

That's because the UI professor of composition will be hard at work on commissions and other works as one of 24 recipients of the 1997 Rome Prize. The award, given annually by the American Academy in Rome since 1896, provides fellowships for American artists and scholars to live and work at the academy's campus atop Rome's Janiculum Hill. Founded in 1894 and chartered by an act of Congress in 1905, the academy is the only American overseas center for independent study, research and creative work in the arts and humanities.

Each year, winners are selected from about 1,000 applicants. This year's prize was awarded to people in the fields of architecture, art history, classical studies, design, historic preservation and conservation, landscape architecture, literature, musical composition, post-classical humanistic studies and visual arts. Phan, who was awarded the Samuel Barber Fellowship, is one of two composers recognized this year.

"This is one of the most prestigious prizes in music composition," said Don V Moses, the director of the UI School of Music. "The last time one of our faculty members won it was 35 years ago, when it was awarded to [the late] Salvatore Martirano."

Other notable composers who have been so honored include Barber and Aaron Copland.

As a recipient of the Rome Prize, Phan will receive a stipend, living and working accommodations and travel expenses to support a year of work in Italy. While there, Phan plans to work on at least three compositions, including two orchestral works and an innovative, 45-minute opera without words commissioned by the Kronos Quartet.

"I'm very, very excited and honored to receive the prize," said Phan, who plans to travel to Rome in September. In addition to being pleased by the opportunity to devote his undivided time to composing, he said he believes the experience will be "a wonderful opportunity to learn another language and culture."

"I'm very enthusiastic and eager to adapt," he said. "It should be a very exciting challenge."

Actually, living and working in Italy will be just the latest in a lifelong series of challenges for the young music professor, who emigrated to the United States from Vietnam in 1982.

While growing up in war-torn Saigon (now Ho Chi Minh City), Phan taught himself to play the piano.

"I would practice eight hours a day ­ often by candlelight, because we didn't always have electricity," he said.

Lack of electricity was only half the challenge, however. Musical scores were in short supply as well.

"Scores were so expensive, and they weren't available in libraries," Phan said. At first, he borrowed books from friends enrolled in a music conservatory. "The books would have 50 to 60 pages of music, and I copied everything by hand. I literally sat there 24 hours a day until I had copied the whole book."

Eventually, when he had learned everything he could get his hands on, he began to compose his own music. His first composition was a piano concerto, which he completed in 20 days.

"When I finished the score, I knew I could compose," Phan said. "A month later, I wrote a symphony," written in a hybrid Western style that was influenced by composers such as Franz Liszt, Piotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky, Beethoven and Frédéric Chopin.

"Because I did a lot of copying, I learned quickly about formal musical structures," said Phan, who also made his own manuscripts by gluing together two 11-x-17-inch sheets of paper. He even invented a tool to use to draw staffs on the pages.

Although he showed an early aptitude for music, Phan originally trained as an architect, and worked for an architectural firm in California when he moved to the United States. Those skills actually came in quite handy during the move.

Phan explained that Vietnamese officials wouldn't allow him to leave the country with his scores because they suspected they might really contain some sort of secret code.

In the end, he smuggled his compositions out of the country by copying them ­ in extremely fine print ­ on a piece of paper about the size of an index card. His own exodus occurred following an earlier, unsuccessful attempt to flee Vietnam by boat with his family. The aborted trip landed Phan in jail for six months.

Since moving to this country, Phan said he has "worked very hard to succeed as an American," and after living here 15 years "is very proud to be part of this country." Still, his experiences as a child and young adult in Vietnam remain with him and continue to fuel his creative spirit.

"Much of my work is based on personal experience," said Phan, who describes his music as a combination of aesthetics and harmony, which has at its core "a social conscience" rooted in philosophical and political conflict. "I tend to look at these conflicts ­ and my own hard times ­ in a positive way ... as inspiration to keep moving on."

Phan, who joined the UI music faculty during the 1996-97 academic year, has a bachelor's degree from the University of Southern California and a doctorate in composition from the University of Michigan.

Prior to joining the UI faculty, Phan taught at Cleveland State University. He has served as guest composer for residencies with the Kronos Quartet at the University of Iowa, the 1995 Asian Composers' Forum in Japan, the University of California at Santa Barbara's New Music Festival, and Music Lives in Pittsburgh. His compositions have been performed throughout North America, Europe, Australia and Asia, and he has received numerous commissions from various ensembles, including the Kronos Quartet, the Cleveland Chamber Symphony, the Pittsburgh New Music Ensemble and the Samaris Piano Trio.

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