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Sketch of the proposed New Synagogue, Shanghai, 1937
Sketch of the proposed New Synagogue, Shanghai, 1937 (Image: public domain in China and United States)

Maestro Long Yu, Shanghai Symphony Orchestra and New York Philharmonic Present World Premiere of Aaron Zigman’s Oratorio ‘Émigré’ November 17

The 90-minute oratorio tells the story of Jewish WWII-era refugees finding a home and community in Shanghai

Maestro Long Yu and Shanghai Symphony Orchestra, along with musicians from the New York Philharmonic, will give the world premiere performance of Aaron Zigman’s new oratorio Émigré on Friday, 17 November at the Jaguar Shanghai Symphony Hall.

Nearly 150 musicians will come together on stage to perform the premiere, including the Shanghai Symphony Orchestra, members of the New York Philharmonic and the New York Philharmonic Chorus, Lanzhou Concert Hall Choir, and seven soloists. The soloists are Matthew White, Arnold Livingston Geis, Huiling Zhu, Meigui Zhang, Shenyang, Diana Newman and Andrew Dwan.

Shanghai Symphony Orchestra and Long Yu will also be recording the oratorio for a 2024 release on Deutsche Grammophon, and the New York Philharmonic will perform the U.S. premiere on February 29, 2024.

A much-needed message of kindness, tolerance and community

Long Yu, Music Director of the Shanghai Symphony Orchestra, said: “Émigré will shed light on humanity and provide a valuable lesson to us through the immense kindness and tolerance this city [Shanghai] once released in history. From working on the draft idea to finally premiering the work this week, this new production has been carefully crafted over four years.

Beijing Music Festival 2020 China Philharmonic Orchestra
Long Yu conducts the China Philharmonic Orchestra at the Beijing Music Festival’s closing concert 20 October 2020, with violist Yu Mingyue. Photo courtesy of the Beijing Music Festival.

“We have musicians of different races and beliefs gathered in Shanghai to collaborate on the stage, and the piece will be performed by other orchestras in years to come, further conveying this message of love and hope to the world. This is the power of art.”

The Creators

Aaron Zigman is a classically-trained American composer who has written scores for films and TV shows including The Notebook, Wakefield, Bridge to Terabithia and the Sex & The City franchise while also writing, arranging and producing songs for top recording artists such as Ray Charles, Sting, Tina Turner and Seal. Zigman has also composed a number of chamber, orchestral and vocal works, and his award-winning piece “Tango Manoshas” been touring the world with pianist Jean-Yves Thibaudet.

Mark Campbell is a Pulitzer Prize-winning librettist who has created 40 opera librettos alongside lyrics for seven musicals and the text for nine song cycles and four oratorios. The (R)evolution of Steve Jobs, an opera with libretto by Campbell, received a 2018 GRAMMY Award for Best Opera Recording.

Fleeing the rise of the Nazis

Shanghai, China was one of the few places to welcome Jewish refugees from Nazi Germany in the late 1930s. It wasn’t the first time Jews escaping persecution had fled to Shanghai. But things had changed. China itself had suffered from occupation by Japan and the atrocities of the Nanjing Massacre committed less than a year before Kristallnacht induced many German Jews to emigrate.

Émigré depicts this moment in history. The oratorio focuses on two Jewish brothers navigating their new life as surprising bonds form between the Jewish and Shanghainese communities. An intercultural love story ensues, and a message emerges: For civilization to survive, diverse communities must learn to embrace our shared humanity.

Composer Aaron Zigman described his connection to the topic: “To write an Oratorio about the cultural exchange between the Jews, who were welcomed by the Chinese people in WWII with open arms, and the people of China, has such a compelling meaning for me. If not for Shanghai and the goodwill of China, some of my ancestors and someone very close to me would have perished at the hands of the Nazis during WWII.”

After reading The Rape of Nanking by Iris Chang, Zigman said, he “became very interested in Chinese history and the fact that we both shared a type of persecution and threat of our existence. The story of the Jewish refugees that escaped Nazi Germany to Shanghai for a better life is so important to understand. And I now understand it to a greater extent, thanks to this commission from Maestro Long Yu, the SSO and New York Philharmonic.

“My aim was to write a piece that expressed the beauty, yet also pain and hope for a better future that both the Chinese and Jews experienced together during the 1930s and 1940s.”

Though Émigré is billed as an oratorio, librettist Mark Campbell said that it also carries elements of both opera and musical theater, as it has “characters rather than archetypes, a story arc, and divisions of the text into scenes and settings,” and “the score is composed of songs – real songs structured mostly in good ol’ AABA.” Zigman’s friend and past collaborator Brock Walsh contribute lyrics for five of the 17 songs.

Both Zigman and Campbell expressed profound gratitude, in Campbell’s words, “to Long Yu, the Shanghai Symphony Orchestra and the New York Philharmonic for believing in this mongrel of oratorio/opera/musical and giving [us] the opportunity to help deliver its message.”

The Artists: Long Yu, SSO and the NY Phil

Long Yu is the pre-eminent Chinese conductor with an established international reputation. He is currently Artistic Director and Chief Conductor of the China Philharmonic Orchestra, Music Director of the Shanghai and Guangzhou Symphony Orchestras, the Artistic Director of MISA Shanghai Summer Festival, and the principal guest conductor of the Hong Kong Philharmonic Orchestra. He has conducted leading orchestras and opera companies around the world including the New York Philharmonic, Chicago Symphony Orchestra, Philadelphia Orchestra, Orchestre de Paris, Hamburg State Opera, Rundfunk-Sinfonieorchester Berlin, Sydney Symphony Orchestra, BBC Symphony Orchestra and many more.

Shanghai Symphony Orchestra (SSO) is one of the earliest and best-known orchestral ensemble of its kind in Asia, through which Chinese symphonic music has developed. Originally known as the Shanghai Public Band, it was renamed the Shanghai Municipal Orchestra in 1922. The orchestra promoted Western music and trained Chinese young talents very early on in China, and was the first to introduce the first Chinese orchestral music to the audiences. The SSO has held over 10,000 concerts over its more than 100 years.

Founded in 1842, the New York Philharmonic is the oldest symphony orchestra in the United States. Jaap van Zweden became Music Director in 2018–19, following titans including Bernstein, Toscanini, and Mahler; he will be succeeded by Gustavo Dudamel (as Music Director Designate in 2025–26, and Music and Artistic Director beginning in 2026–27).

About Jon Sobel

Jon Sobel is Publisher and Executive Editor of Blogcritics as well as lead editor of the Culture & Society section. As a writer he contributes most often to our Music section, where he covers classical music (old and new) and other genres, and to Culture, where he reviews NYC theater. Through Oren Hope Marketing and Copywriting at you can hire him to write or edit whatever marketing or journalistic materials your heart desires. Jon also writes the blog Park Odyssey at where he is on a mission to visit every park in New York City. He has also been a part-time working musician, including as lead singer, songwriter, and bass player for Whisperado.

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