When Chen Yi learned by e-mail that she was the recipient of a Roche Commission, she was overjoyed, she recalls in an interview during rehearsals for the world premiere of the resulting composition, Si Ji ("The Seasons"), at Switzerland's Lucerne Festival in August. "Of course I was happy," the composer adds. "But I had to keep it a secret for a long time," until the official announcement in August 2004.
The Roche Commission is an exciting development in the arts‹an international commissioning project that unites an important sponsor with three equally important music organizations. The players in this new institutional quartet, the first of its kind, are Switzerland's Roche healthcare company, Carnegie Hall, the Lucerne Festival, and The Cleveland Orchestra. Each Roche-commissioned work is given its world premiere at the Lucerne summer festival, followed by U.S. performances in Cleveland and at Carnegie Hall. Chen Yi's Si Ji, the second Roche commission, is to be performed this month at Carnegie Hall by The Cleveland Orchestra.
"What an opportunity," the composer continues. "This orchestra is the top of the top ten. And its roster is so huge, with such possibilities for instrumentation! For the first time I could write for quadruple winds"‹three flutes and piccolo, three clarinets and bass clarinet, three oboes and English horn, and three bassoons and contrabassoon. "I think some of the players were brought over just to play my piece!"
Chen Yi has an impressive body of work to her credit. A hallmark of her music is its fusion of Chinese and Western elements, in which the Chinese dimension often goes beyond music to embrace speech patterns, poetic imagery, or painting. Si Ji, she explains, is based on four 11th-century poems that "describe the seasons, nature, mysteries, thunderstorms."
Western composers have long turned to the East to enrich their art. Does Chen Yi, as a Chinese composer, bring something different to the process because of her different cultural perspective? "Not really," she says with a laugh. "I was classically trained in Western music first‹Chinese music came later. I started playing the piano at three and the violin at four. My parents were both doctors, but classical music was very important in our home in Guangzhon." Before the Communist takeover in 1949, her parents had a lot of Western friends, she explains. "I had a very happy childhood and was often excused from school early to go to concerts or ballets. My brother and sister are also musicians and have flourishing careers in China."
But the family's Western ties and upper echelon status were held against them during the infamous Cultural Revolution. "They thought my parents were international spies," says the composer. The whole family was uprooted in the late 1960s and dispersed to different places. "Everything was in turmoil for two years. My father became a country doctor and my mother a prisoner working in a hospital. I was sent to the country, too, but I took my violin along, and when I entertained farmers with revolutionary songs, I slipped in bits of Paganini." After a year, music was her ticket back to Guangzhon: she was invited to play in the city's Beijing opera troupe. "The opera stories were rewritten along revolutionary lines, and, ironically, the orchestra was made up of Western instruments because Madame Mao thought they had more power! Even so, this was the basis of my training in traditional Chinese music."
If her experience left lasting scars, you would never know it. "I learned a lot from both a happy life and a miserable life. As my father said, 'Mozart's music has a childhood brightness, but you don't see the tears running down his cheeks.'" Chen Yi was 25 when the Cultural Revolution ended and she enrolled at the reopened Beijing Central Conservatory, becoming the first woman in China to earn a master's degree in music. Her motivation for coming to the United States was simple. "There was no doctoral program in China. Right after Columbia University admitted me, I got my passport and visa and left. China was very open then, but I never thought of going back." She didn't have to, given the opportunities that came her way after completing the Columbia program, where Chou Wen-chung and Mario Davidovsky were her principal teachers. Now she is a professor herself at the University of Missouri at Kansas City. "There were 13 or 14 composition students when I joined the faculty in 1998. Now we have 57." Chen Yi also remains busy with her own writing. Her Third Symphony was premiered by the Seattle Symphony in 2004, and Ballad, Dance and Fantasy, a cello concerto for Yo-Yo Ma first performed by the Pacific Symphony in Orange County, California, was taken up by the New York Philharmonic earlier this year. Her Violin Concerto had its premiere in Dresden this month, but she couldn't attend because the performance conflicted with her induction into the American Academy of Arts and Scientists.
For her new orchestral piece she again draws on her native land for melodic inspiration. "Si Ji uses pitches from a Chinese folk tune, which gives it a tonal feeling," Chen Yi says. "Music is best when it comes naturally. Composers must speak their own language, based on what they've digested in the past. I want my music to be emotional and touching and at the same time logical. That's the requirement I set for myself."
George Loomis writes frequently about the arts.