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 premiere!


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