Local Freshman Composer Shines With Musical Spirit

Photo courtesy Xia Qiu
In 2015, La Cañada Flintridge resident Sydney Wang performed on a music tour for her first winning composition competition, traveling to Austria, where she played in the Mozart House.

Years ago, Zhen-Gang Wang was at the piano, practicing, while his then-5-year-old twins played together on the ground nearby, seemingly engrossed in their own activities.
But then one of them spoke up.
“Dad,” Wang’s daughter, Sydney, said, “You’re playing the wrong key.”
After a moment’s reflection, the Caltech chemical engineering professor agreed: “Oh, darn! I am.”
So goes the story, one of many chronicling the La Cañada High School freshman’s natural musical aptitude, a gift that’s already opening doors and garnering international acclaim.
At 2 years old, Wang could play a simple song on a piano, her mom, Xia Qiu, said. By 6, Sydney could hear a pop song once and sing it back, hitting each note perfectly. Professor Ian Krouse of the UCLA Herb Alpert School of Music took her on as a private student at 11, agreeing to meet with her a couple of times per month to help cultivate her budding composing skills.
And earlier this year, Wang, now 14, was invited to New York City to receive the 65th annual BMI Student Composer Award for her ambitious four-movement symphonic work, “Tales from the Sea.”
Wang, who is known for being funny, humble and hard-working, might usually seem shy, but she is ebullient when she’s discussing music. Her dream is to write scores for the big screen, to help bring movies like “Jurassic Park,” “Titanic” and “Legends of the Fall” to life.
She plays piano and cello in a variety of settings, including the Colburn School chamber program, the Pasadena Youth Symphony Orchestra and, in a couple weeks, the LCHS Orchestra. But her foremost love is composing.
She was the youngest among this year’s nine BMI Student Composer awardees, promising composers selected from nearly 700 anonymous submissions from throughout the Western Hemisphere. The competition is such a big deal, Wang said she was shocked to get the call from chair Deidre Chadwick relaying the good news before school one morning in April, and spent the rest of the day “floating on the clouds.”
A few weeks later, Wang and her family — including her brother, Bryan, whose forte is technology — were on a flight to New York City. There, she found inspiration everywhere: at the Metropolitan Museum of Art; during the musical, “Cats” — “halfway through, I started having fantasies about being a Broadway dancer!” — And at all of BMI’s award functions.
Wang felt young and awkward at a table of “mature, sophisticated” collegians at the pre-awards dinner for the honorees, but found herself more comfortable around them the next day, when they received their awards. She said she was then awestruck being in the presence of past winners, music industry big shots, noted composers and all sorts of other “important people.”
“I was actually very nervous because I didn’t know what to say to them, how to approach them,” Wang said. “But when you’re a winner, they actually want to talk to you!”
And why wouldn’t they?
“She’s really talented for her age,” said Jack Taylor, Wang’s conductor with the Pasadena Youth Symphony Orchestra, for which she’s a cellist. “And she’s mature, not just talented. She’s a mature musician who understands how instruments fit together.
“A lot of times students can play the notes well, but some students just understand the expression of the music and how to express music. There are a lot of mature students in the symphony, but she is one of our most mature.
“The artistic world is so entrenched in who you know,” Taylor added, “and I think she’s already well on her way as far as that goes. It’s a long road, and you have to get noticed, but I think she’s got a chance.”
Having taken piano lessons since she was 4, Wang was a winner at the Southern California Junior Bach Festival, the Southwestern Youth Music Festival, the Los Angeles Young Pianist Competition, the Kathryn Gawartin Chopin Piano Competition and in plenty other contests.
But those competitions left the girl’s nerves frayed — at least until she realized that her destiny might not be concert pianist. Figuring out that much took the pressure off and allowed her to play more freely.
“I just don’t think I have it in me; I don’t think I’d enjoy practicing six hours a day, either,” said Wang, who says she’s happily spent nine hours a day composing, wrestling with and recording ideas that most often strike her around 10 p.m.
“Music, somehow, it just comes naturally to me,” Wang said. “When I write using words, it’s harder than when you write it out in music, because I can hear it and I can decide, ‘OK, if it matches what I have in mind, then I know it’s right.’”
Wang has won more prizes for her composition work, also including the Robert Avalon International Competition. She’s awaiting word about whether she’s been accepted into the L.A. Phil’s Nancy and Berry Sanders Composer Fellowship program. And her orchestral composition, “Moonlit River,” was the first piece written by a member of the Pasadena Youth Symphony Orchestra also to be performed by the group.
“This one, when I heard it, I thought it would really complement our program for the spring, so I went out on a limb and said, ‘Let’s go ahead and play it,’” Taylor said. “It is not usual that we play student’s pieces, for sure, but I think this one was ready to perform.”
She worked on the piece with Krouse, whom she credits with much of her progress.
He encouraged her to submit a piece to the BMI contest (which he, once a guitar prodigy, also won as a young composer.) Krouse also pushed her to flush out and finish the symphony that earned her the recognition.
The impressionistic, 20-minute piece, written for a full orchestra, opens with a tumultuous first movement, “Storm at Sea.” That’s followed by the “Siren Song,” a building, atmospheric movement that incorporates a saxophone. Third comes the “Flight of the Barnacle Goslings,” a whimsical movement inspired by a National Geographic episode about baby geese in Ireland who leap from their nests hundreds of feet above the ground.
The fourth and final movement, “The Journey of the Blue Whales,” is Wang’s favorite part.
“It’s the culmination of the entire symphony, it’s grand, and if I say so myself, it’s beautiful,” she said. “It came really easily; I watched a video of blue whales, listened to their sounds and it just clicked.”
Taylor said that from what he’s heard, Wang had a knack for writing music that connects with the audience, which is what matters most.
Jennifer Munday, who was Wang’s instrumental music teacher at La Cañada Elementary School and now will teach her as a part of the high school orchestra, made Wang first chair during the Christmas concert in elementary school.
“I gave her extra things to do because she was so good,” Munday said. “I noticed throughout the year, she just improved exponentially, she really was very, very good. And you’d look at her, and she’d just beam. She was really into music.”
Not many kids are as passionate about music as she is, though. And that can be tough.
“Pretty much everyone else will be talking about the latest celebrity gossip, who broke up, the new TV shows, and I will have no idea. I’ll just sit there like, ‘That’s cool, but I really don’t care,’” said Wang, who plans also to join the LCHS tennis team and to avoid overburdening herself with honors and AP course offerings.
“And, obviously, it’s the same the other way around; if I were to talk to them [about composers] they would have no idea what I’m talking about. So it’s lonely sometimes, because a lot of people hang out with each other because they have common interests, but composition is a topic that’s off-limits.”
Although her talent might not be plainly visible, quietly, she’s proud of it and dedicated to making the most of it.
“I’m less prone to peer pressure,” she said. “It’s like, ‘OK, you guys can pressure yourselves, but I’ve got this thing, you ain’t got this thing. This is my thing.”

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