Yao Chen

Yao Chen

We’re thrilled to announce a new col­lab­o­ra­tion with Yao Chen, a young Chi­nese-born com­pos­er now liv­ing and work­ing near Chica­go. Chen has won a com­mis­sion from the Fromm Music Foun­da­tion of Har­vard Uni­ver­si­ty to com­pose a new work for Civ­i­tas and pipa play­er Yang Wei. This is a seri­ous, pres­ti­gious award that Chen has received. We’re all tremen­dous­ly hap­py for him — and even more excit­ed to be involved with the project.

When I heard this news from Yuan-Qing, she told me that she was look­ing for­ward to being part of the cre­ative process involved in pro­duc­ing and real­iz­ing a new musi­cal work. Anoth­er attrac­tive aspect of this project, she said, was the oppor­tu­ni­ty to “to pro­mote Chi­nese cul­ture through music,” through both the usage of the pipa and the sub­ject of Chen’s new com­po­si­tion. (A bit more about that in a moment.)

This won’t be the first time Chen’s music has been heard on a Civ­i­tas pro­gram. Last March, his “Yearn­ing” for zheng and dou­ble bass was per­formed on a con­cert we orga­nized in col­lab­o­ra­tion with the Chi­nese Fine Arts Soci­ety at the Art Insti­tute.

Yao Chen performance

Dan Arm­strong and YuQi Deng play Yao Chen’s Yearn­ing

As I lis­tened to that con­cert, I remem­ber think­ing that Chen’s piece was par­tic­u­lar­ly expres­sive and direct in its musi­cal lan­guage. There’s an incred­i­ble sense of spa­cious­ness and open­ness in his music: he avoids get­ting bogged down in the details, nev­er over­load­ing his works with too much mate­r­i­al. For me, at least, “Yearn­ing” wasn’t about an intel­lec­tu­al process. Instead, it was about con­vey­ing an inten­si­ty of the emo­tion — home­sick­ness — that inspired the piece.

And what about the inspi­ra­tion for his new work for us? Chen tells me that this time around, his work will be based on “the mul­ti­ple man­i­fes­ta­tions of an impor­tant Bod­hisatt­va in Tibetan Bud­dhism.”

One of the rea­sons we’re so excit­ed about this new work is that, like Civ­i­tas, Chen is very inter­est­ed in the poten­tial of music to express val­ues of cross-cul­tur­al dia­logue. Through­out his career so far, Chen has been con­cerned with com­bin­ing “West­ern” and “East­ern” musi­cal lan­guages. Giv­en his back­ground, per­haps it’s not hard to see why. He was born in Chi­na and was edu­cat­ed at the pres­ti­gious Cen­tral Con­ser­va­to­ry of Music in Bei­jing, but he’s been in the Unit­ed States since 2001, first as a Ph.D. stu­dent at the Uni­ver­si­ty of Chica­go and now as an Assis­tant Pro­fes­sor of Com­po­si­tion at Illi­nois State Uni­ver­si­ty.

Yang Wei

Yang Wei

As I men­tioned, this project will also give the Civ­i­tas musi­cians an oppor­tu­ni­ty to col­lab­o­rate and per­form with pipa play­er Yang Wei. Like Chen, Yang Wei makes his home in the Unit­ed States by way of Chi­na. And like Chen, he holds an artis­tic phi­los­o­phy that “hon­ors the musi­cal her­itage of his home­land in Chi­na, but also com­bines the West­ern influ­ences of his new home.”

I asked Yuan-Qing about the expe­ri­ence of per­form­ing along­side tra­di­tion­al Chi­nese instru­ments. “Because of the pen­ta­ton­ic scale struc­ture” in Chi­nese music, she said, “the con­cept of pitch is some­times dif­fer­ent. The tra­di­tion­al Chi­nese pieces use much more open fourth and fifth inter­vals, and as a result there’s less empha­sis on melod­ic into­na­tion through lead­ing tones. Also, some­times the folk instru­ment nota­tions are less pre­cise and rigid, leav­ing more room for inter­pre­ta­tion.”

Some­times, Yuan-Qing told me, the dif­fer­ences between West­ern and Chi­nese instru­ments can intro­duce real chal­lenges in the col­lab­o­ra­tion process. “Chi­nese instru­men­tal­ists are very expres­sive per­form­ers, per­haps because their his­to­ry stems from being an essen­tial part of the­ater per­for­mances. The per­form­ers are great at play­ing by ear, but often are not used to fol­low­ing con­duc­tors,” she said. That’s why Civ­i­tas is so lucky to be work­ing with her friend Yang Wei: “He’s Shang­hai Con­ser­va­to­ry-trained and a great pipa play­er. He would have no prob­lem with that.”

Yang Wei with friends of Civitas

Yang Wei with friends of Civ­i­tas

By the way, you may have also heard Yang Wei per­form­ing at the Chi­nese Fine Arts Soci­ety con­cert in March. Here you can see him prepar­ing for the con­cert with Civ­i­tas and sev­er­al of our friends from the Chica­go Sym­pho­ny Orches­tra.

And in a few months’ time, you just might see a sim­i­lar pic­ture of Yang Wei with us, this time for a rehearsal of a brand new work by Yao Chen. We hope you’ll stay tuned as we con­tin­ue to post about this new project, and of course we hope we’ll see you at the pre­mière!


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