Found in Translation

Classic Arts Features   Found in Translation
Composer Chen Yi appears at Weill Recital Hall on April 20.

Where is our "classical music"‹not those cherished works we already know from the past, but the music that expands their traditions and yet emerges from the living voices of our own era? Usually, an undertone of anxiety‹if not a flat-out inferiority complex‹accompanies this question. It should console us to recall that similar doubts have proliferated before: during the previous fin de siècle, for example, in the afterglow of romanticism. Yet, as Yo-Yo Ma's ongoing Silk Road Project has been so eloquent in demonstrating, cultural imagination evolves in previously unfathomed directions thanks to the synergy of contact. Such was the case with Debussy, for example. Inspired in part by an aesthetic from the Far East, he evoked a nuanced beauty whose very possibility proved that the heritage of Central European composers had by no means "said it all."

A century later, there is a new type of synergy under way. But the potential for recombination of perspectives and idioms seems far richer, now that the exchange is not so one-sided. Audiences have been reacting passionately to this sense of recharged vitality in concert halls, opera houses, and even the cinema, particularly to the music of composers such as Chen Yi, who belongs to a generation of outstanding composers, now in their prime, who interweave classical and folk music vocabularies from their native China with Western elements (ranging from traditional forms and compositional technique to instrumentation). Chen Yi‹like her acclaimed compatriots Tan Dun and Bright Sheng‹unites intimate knowledge of Chinese sources and styles with rigorous training in Western approaches. This fusion endows her work with a richly textured personality that has nothing to do with the musical tourism of exotic, superficial flavorings.

Chen Yi's astonishingly prolific output, which will be sampled in her April 20 appearance at Weill Recital Hall, demonstrates that she has not only much to say, but a fresh and engaging language through which to express it. Her oeuvre embraces compositions for orchestral and chamber ensembles as well as choral and vocal pieces (opera is the chief genre in which she has yet to make her mark). Chen Yi is thoroughly at home with maneuvering large-scale symphonic canvases. She seems especially attracted to the concerto; indeed her best-known work may be the frequently performed Percussion Concerto that she composed for Evelyn Glennie. Last month alone saw the world premieres of her new Cello Concerto (written for Yo-Yo Ma) and her Symphony No. 3 ("My Musical Journey to America"). The latter was commissioned for the Seattle Symphony's centenary season under music director Gerard Schwarz.

A leading advocate of Chen Yi, Schwarz notes her "extraordinary orchestral gift, with contrapuntal understanding and a clear grasp of how a piece moves." Her larger pieces sometimes incorporate authentic Asian instruments but also use the conventional Western symphonic ensemble in brilliantly imaginative ways to "translate" concepts and sonorities from a host of Chinese traditions. Schwarz distinguishes the emotional energy in Chen Yi's music from the trend of easily accessible neo-romanticism. "It has an edge, but the edge is not unattractive," he says. "Chen Yi gives us the element of tension and release we need to feel as though we've been on a journey."

Chen Yi's program this month at Carnegie Hall invites us to trace her personal artistic journey. The assortment of chamber music that will be highlighted forms a sort of parallel universe to her works for full orchestra and conveys her approach to style, technique, and instrumentation‹several of the featured pieces, in fact, coexist in versions for larger ensembles. Together they illustrate the paradoxical double-focus of her music: it is saturated with ancestral, timeless voices yet also draws on the modernist Western avant-garde. The result is a wonderfully engaging expressive power that alternates rich lyricism with dynamic gusto.

Thomas May is a senior editor at and also writes for, the San Francisco Symphony, and the San Francisco Opera.

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