Warren Gerds/Critic at Large: Review: Yi-Lan Niu, ‘Two Song Cycles’ adventure into the new in De Pere

Critic At Large

St. Norbert College Music Department

Principals in “Two Song Cycles” world premiere, clockwise from upper left, composer Hsinying Lin, soprano Yi-Lan Niu, pianist Elaine Moss and composer John Hennecken. (St. Norbert College screenshot)

DE PERE, Wis. (WFRV) – Some people pick up a novel and skip right away to the end.

When taking in the online recording of the new “Two Song Cycles” featuring the formidable voice of Yi-Lan Niu, I recommend skipping, too. On the site,, go to the tenth panel down and click on the segment “2021 World Premiere Two Song Cycles, The Process of Creation.”

There you will get a foundation on the remarkable project, delayed a year and shifted to an online presentation because of COVID-19 pandemic reasons.

All of the songs are sung in French and Chinese, so you probably need a boost.

The project has to do with the voice, mind and ambition of Yi-Lan Niu, who teaches at St. Norbert College.

Yi-Lan Niu’s voice is… big and sturdily built, with towering elements, sweeping range and many facets of color – along with firmness, strength, depths and shades of emotion, flexibility and, in the end, character.

In the segment, composer John Hennecken of the St. Norbert College music faculty says one of his goals was to write his material to the level of the performers. In other words, he wanted his music to be worthy of their worthiness. John Hennecken adds a thought on Yi-Lan Niu – about looking to get his music to a point for her at which audiences would say, “Wow, how did she do that?”

He mentions two movements of his work, the second and forth, where she is “virtuosic.”

Also in the segment, composer Hsinying Lin speaks from Taiwan, the homeland of Yi-Lan Niu. Hsinying Lin tells about searching for the right poetry to compose music to – three poems about flowers. She speaks English in prepared questions. When Yi-Lan Niu improvises a thought, the two speak Chinese. Yi-Lin Niu translates and fights back tears when Hsinying Lin tells of her feelings about having her music realized.

Extremely versatile piano accompanist Elaine Moss also participates, speaking of riding along on another Yi-Lan Niu adventure, this time being pushed by the music. She calls it “brain training,” and “I’m not a 21th-century music performer.” John Hennecken laughs and says, “You are now.”

Yi-Lan Niu snaps a selfie with Elaine Moss at the piano in Dudley Birder Hall of St. Norbert College.

Hsingying Lin speaks of the Chinese language containing five intonations and how they are expressed being critical in meanings. That is something Yi-Lan Niu had to take care of in performing.

John Hennecken speaks of his “search for a new sound,” because, after all, the songs are new.

Yi-Lan Niu, Hsingying Lin and John Hennecken speak of the importance of the text in the creation of their music. It is crucial to put the correct notes in the correct emphasis and the correct nuance and inflection to give the correct impression of what they say. This is where I am lost because I only know a dusting of French and not a speck of Chinese so meanings I presume can only be from impressions from the music.

The discussion is important to hear. Yi-Lan Niu asks three questions of the others and herself – on motivation, effort and challenges in the project. Answers help because, listening to the music, one might draw an impression like mine:

A door opens on a room in which I have never been. In it, everything is impressionistic or downright abstract. From an elegant human voice comes sounds of words I can only place somewhat by emotions in the voice. In a way, I am in a dream state. Things seem to happen, but they are elusive. Yi-Lan Niu, Hsingying Lin and John Hennecken operate in a sphere of very select inhabitants. I am outsider looking in, trying my best.

Program cover. (Screenshot)



“Two Song Cycles” – world premiere; sound engineer – Paul Mashl; posters, photo editor – Marybeth Koss.

Yi-Lan Niu, soprano, Elaine Moss piano.


Cycle 1

“Départ-Cinq melodies français” – John Hennecken



     “Chanson d’automne”


     “Serenade Italienne”

Cycle 2

“The Flower Theme” – Hsinying Lin


     “Thorn Apple”

     “Chinese Fringe Tree”


General observations: The singer is not seen in either cycle. Images are shown, impressionistic paintings in the first cycle and a combination of artwork and photographs in the second; images evoke an aura.

The mind aura is of soul-searching, reflection and sometimes melancholy or yearning.

Melody… escapes the common image because the voice is more spoken/sung than sung/sung. The voice seems to be singing a story. The music is palpable, not dissonant.

The voice brings its certain riches to the aura-making, and the piano consistently adds layers of depth and complexity to the fabric.

Each composer seems to take pleasure in going where no one has gone before; a sense of creation emanates from the works.

A surprise to me is how Hsinying Lin’s music has an origin of its own rather than being geographically placed. It seems a companion to John Hennecken’s music rather than being “other.” In musical ways, they seem to speak the same language.

Yi-Lan Niu seems to be a force for instilling ventures into rarified places. Plus, as John Hennecken says of the “Obsession” and “Elevation” movements, Yi-Lan Niu soars to stellar regions. Indeed, wow, how did she do that?

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