Composer Zhou Tian took in the sights and sounds of the Union Pacific Museum in Council Bluffs Saturday as he works on a piece commemorating the 150th anniversary of the completion of the Transcontinental Railroad.
As part of its 50th anniversary in 2019 — which corresponds with Transcontinental Railroad anniversary — the Reno Philharmonic Association is leading a consortium to commission Zhou to write an orchestral work.
As part of his quest for inspiration for the work, Zhou stopped by the UP Museum on Saturday, receiving a tour from museum Curator Patricia LaBounty.
“Anything I see and hear today will go into the composition,” Zhou said. “I’m very excited to be here to learn about this important part of railroad history.”
Zhou said through his prep work for the piece, which includes visiting sites in Nevada and California along the railroad route. He visited the Durham Museum on Saturday as well.
Zhou said he’s been learning about, “the hard work of the people that built the railroad.”
He mentioned the international history of the project, including the contribution and hardships-endured of Chinese and Irish migrants.
“It’s important to gather all the information to tell a musical story,” he said.
Zhou is a Grammy-nominated composer who was born in China and trained at Philadelphia’s Curtis Institute of Music, New York’s Juilliard School and the University of Southern California, according to his website. He came to the U.S. at the age of 20 in 2001.
The growing list of participating orchestras in the 150th anniversary celebration includes the Omaha Symphony, home of one Transcontinental Railroad terminus; the Utah Symphony, home of the Golden Spike completion at Promontory Point; the Sacramento Philharmonic and Opera; Cheyenne Symphony Orchestra; and the Michigan State University Symphony. Other orchestras of all budget sizes and geographic locations are being sought to join the consortium and help bring the composition to live.
The Reno Philharmonic will give the world premiere of the composition in April, and the consortium orchestras will perform the work in an exclusive window after that.
The Omaha Symphony will be performing the composition in September as part of the MasterWorks series.
Zhou said he expects the piece to be about 20 minutes long, with three movements.
PBS is creating a documentary about the work in conjunction with the celebration, and a portion of the film was recorded during Zhou’s visit to the museum and tour with LaBounty.
“It’s fantastic,” LaBounty said of hosting Zhou and the celebration of the Transcontinental Railroad. “People forget that Council Bluffs is a booked to the railroad.”
— Reporter Jon Leu contributed to this report.