by Amanda Bertholf // Spring 2011
When Chen Yi was a teenager, she was torn from her home in Guangzhou, China, and the music she loved. During the Cultural Revolution of the 1960s and early 1970s, education came to a halt and many people in China, including Chen and her family, were put to work in large communities in the countryside. The government rejected art and culture in favor of massive industrial, agricultural and labor growth. Chen, the Lorena Searcy Cravens/Millsap/Missouri Distinguished Professor at the UMKC Conservatory of Music and Dance, began studying piano when she was three years old. But at the age of 15, she found herself miles away from what was familiar. She was working 10 hours a day in vegetable and rice fields. “It was intensive labor,” she said.
After two years of working in the fields, the government sent her back to the city. Once there, she joined the Revolutionary Opera, which needed a Western orchestra accompaniment. Chen said the government used the orchestra to publicly promote its “hero” image. This orchestra needed to sound better than a traditional Chinese ensemble, so she took on the role of concert master because of her background and training in classical music as a child. During this time, she was allowed to practice Western classical music in addition to her duties with the orchestra.
After the revolution, she finished her education in Beijing, where she was the first woman to earn a master’s degree in composition. She headed to Columbia University in New York City, where she earned her doctorate of musical arts. In 1993, Chen became the composer-in-residence of the Women’s Philharmonic, the Chanticleer Vocal Ensemble and the Aptos Creative Center in San Francisco supported by a grant from Meet the Composer. After the position ended in 1996, she started her first full-time teaching position at the Composition Department of the Peabody Conservatory at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, Md.
“When I compose, it’s natural to blend everything I experience. I’ve been in Kansas City for 12 years, and the culture here influences my music greatly.”
The UMKC Conservatory of Music and Dance invited her to join the composition program in 1998 as the Lorena Searcy Cravens/Millsap/Missouri Distinguished Professor in music composition. “I was happy to come here and have been working hard in my position,” she said. “I love my students and I’m a devoted teacher.”
The last year was a busy one for Chen. In addition to her teaching duties, she composed two pieces for a wind symphony that a consortium of university bands, NWECG (35 bands) and the Mid-America Competing Band Directors Association (13 bands) commissioned. She also completed two pieces for choir and chamber ensembles, one for the San Francisco Girls Chorus and Cypress String Quartet, the other for the Richmond University Choir and the eighth blackbird Chamber Ensemble. She has also composed several choral works that can be sung in Chinese or English.
In 2011, Chen will be working on an orchestral piece for the Seattle Symphony, but perhaps her biggest project of the year will be a major piece for the Kansas City Symphony that the Kauffman Center for the Performing Arts commissioned to celebrate the grand opening of the new performing arts facility. “I will aim for presenting something that represents Kansas City’s culture,” she said. “I’m a local composer, and I consider Kansas City home. When other orchestras commission a piece, they always think of my Asian culture. But when I compose, it’s natural to blend everything I experience. I’ve been in Kansas City for 12 years, and the culture here influences my music greatly.” The piece will come together quickly: She will write it in a month.
Even when she works quickly she says she hopes her creative work is inspiring to her audience. “Music as a language is abstract, but it’s a universal language—we share emotion, beauty, thinking and cultural backgrounds through performance and appreciation with musicians and audience.”