Chinese Concerts Launch Year of the Dog

Civitas Ensemble believes one of the best ways to bring cultures together, to make the world a more beautiful and inclusive place, is through music.

Last year, we collaborated with superstar violinist Pavel Šporcl and The Gipsy Way Ensemble from the Czech Republic in part to reduce the stigma around the Romani (otherwise known as gypsy) culture and the Roma people. The MacArthur International Connections funded project instead elevated Romani traditions and musicians. Earlier this season, we celebrated French and Czech composers who were influenced by Russian composers in Paris to highlight the importance of cross-cultural pollination with a program collaboratively designed with the Driehaus Museum in conjunction with their L’Affichomania: The Passion for French Posters exhibit.

This winter, as we celebrate the Year of the Dog, we’re excited to bring audiences music from contemporary Chinese composers that have been influenced by both Eastern and Western music to show audiences a range of ways in which these two cultures can come together musically.

In our concerts on February 26 and March 4, we will perform two pieces written by modern Chinese composers — “Emanations of Tara” by Yao Chen and “Five Elements” by Zhou Long. Both composers are known for creating music that combines elements of both Western and Eastern sensibilities — perhaps because both were originally born in China but then spent time studying music in the United States.

Yao Chen was born in China and came to the United States in 2001 at the age of 23, where he earned his Ph.D. in composition at the University of Chicago and later taught at the University of Chicago, the University of Illinois and Illinois State University. He now lives in Beijing.

After a long, distinguished education in China learning both classical and traditional Chinese music, before and after the Cultural revolution, Zhou earned a Doctor in Musical Arts at Columbia University. A citizen of the United States, Zhou has taught and composed extensively, and is the winner of the 2011 Pulitzer Prize for Music for his opera, Madame White Snake.

Both “Emanations of Tara” and “Five Elements” use a combination of Western instruments with the pipa, a traditional Chinese string instrument, to create a sound that is wholly unique.

“The pipa is also called the Chinese lute,” explains Yihan Chen, a well-known pipa player who will be playing the instrument at both concerts. “It is held vertically, and I use my right hand fingers to pluck the strings outward to make a bright and clear sound. The pipa is a very expressive instrument. It can play very beautiful sounds and also can play some dramatic sound effects, which works well for new music.” Plans are also under way to record both pieces for a second album with Chicago’s Cedille Records are in the coming weeks.