Over a career spanning nearly 50 years, Dr. Chen Yi has established herself as one of the most significant artistic voices of her generation. Born in China in 1953 and raised during the Cultural Revolution, Dr. Chen began her career as a violinist, procuring the post of concertmaster of the Peking Opera Orchestra in Guangzhou while still a teenager. She received her Bachelor and Master’s degrees in Composition from the Central Conservatory of Music in Beijing, becoming the first woman to receive the latter degree from the institution. She later obtained her DMA in Composition from Columbia University.
Dr. Chen has had works performed by many of the world’s greatest ensembles, such as the NY and LA Philharmonics, the BBC, Cleveland, and Singapore Symphony Orchestras, the St. Paul Chamber Orchestra, and Chanticleer, and has collaborated with soloists such as Yehudi Menuhin, Yo-Yo Ma, and Evelyn Glennie. Chen’s understanding of and respect for distinctly different musical traditions, and the impeccable skill with which she blends them, whether in small arrangements for consorts of traditional Chinese instruments, large symphonic works utilizing Western instruments, or a plethora of pieces that employ both, is nothing short of remarkable. As she approaches 70, it is clear that a multitude of compositional possibilities still lay before her.
Get to know Chen’s work through our newest Etude magazine, which dives into our full catalog of the works she has written over the last five decades. Then scroll to discover some of Chen Yi's most impactful works below, or continue your listening journey into Chen Yi's repertoire through these playlists, curated for your listening pleasure.
Dr. Chen reaches back through the centuries for inspiration in this challenging solo piano work, utilizing material drawn from the Chinese instrumental folk piece of the same name, and from her own Piano Concerto. Played here by pianist Wynona Yinuo Wang in New York City, 2020.
I believe that music is a universal language. I enjoy sharing my music with people around the world. I hope that it could be inspiring and helpful, to bridge peoples from different cultural traditions, to improve the level of understanding between peoples in different parts of the world, for the peace of our society.”
—Chen Yi 陳怡
The European premiere of Chen Yi’s Percussion Concerto played by Evelyn Glennie with the BBC Symphony Orchestra and Yan-Pascal Tortelier in 2003 is, in Chen’s own words, one of the highlights of her musical career. This 2018 performance by the Stony Brook Symphony Orchestra, conducted by Eduardo Leandro at SUNY Stony Brook, features soloist Sun Yi.
In 2021, Vanderbilt University’s Blair School of Music presented Qi, a dynamic, forward-moving work by Dr. Chen for flute, cello, piano, and percussion which, in the composer’s words, used a “mixed combination of Western instruments to create the sound from the East.” Featuring flutist Molly Barth, cellist Felix Wang, pianist Heather Connor, and percussionist Ji Hye Hung.
Within the organic energy of Chen Yi’s music, expression alternately shimmers, dances, charms, radiates and explodes. No matter what her subject – story or description; narrative or nature – Chen Yi writes with such sturdy strength that her music feels inevitable: what we perceive as surprises and unexpected developments are simply the next breaths in Chen Yi’s creative breathing.
—Jean Ballard Terepka, TheaterScene.net
This 2015 concert at the Beijing International Composition Workshop at the Central Conservatory of Music Beijing, China includes Ning, a work pairing two Western instruments, the violin and the cello, with pipa, a traditional, plucked Chinese instrument. Performed here by violinist Alexandra Greffin-Klein, cellist Alexis Descharmes, and pipa player Sun Jing. The work was commissioned by the Chamber Music Society of Minnesota for Young-Nam Kim, Yo-Yo Ma, and Wu Man who gave premiere performance in 2001.
In 2013, Dolce Voce Macau performed Chen’s Spring Dreams for mixed choir at the Beijing Modern Music Festival at the Central Conservatory of Music, Beijing, under the baton of Maria Vanessa Leao.
Her blockbuster...Spring Dreams, in which the voices speak, whisper and chirp, imitating birds and creating a counterpoint of innovative and haunting sounds. The music is so immediately alluring that it grips the ears and never lets go. Chanticleer sang Chen Yi as if her sonic language were its mother tongue.
—Donald Rosenberg, The Plain Dealer Cleveland
DISTANCE CAN'T KEEP US TWO APART
Commissioned by the American Choral Directors Association Endowment, Chen’s Distance Can’t Keep Us Two Apart was premiered by seven choirs at ACDA division conferences across the country. This premiere performance was given by the Montclair State University Singers, conducted by Dr. Heather Buchanan, at the ACDA Eastern Division Conference in Providence, Rhode Island, in 2012.
Chen Yi wrote Memory, a plaintive work for solo violin, as a tribute to her teacher, Professor Lin Yaoji, following his passing in 2009. In the program notes, the composer speaks to her mentor: “I wish you could hear the tune in my Memory, which sounds like my painful cry out of your name in our Cantonese dialect. I expressed my deep sorrow in the music, to remember your fatherly mentorship. Your meaningful smile will always be with us encouragingly.” This 2019 performance features violinist Patrick Yim at Chung Chi College Chapel, CUHK in Hong Kong.
Chinese composer Chen Yi, too, has demonstrated a capacity for finding expressive richness in the east-west aesthetic...She pens music of color and intensity, shying away from neither dissonant, post-serial vocabulary or folk-ish clarity.
—Josef Woodard, JazzTimes
CHINESE ANCIENT DANCES
Chen Yi uses two folk dances from ancient China as the inspiration for her clarinet and piano duet Chinese Ancient Dances, performed here by Yu-Ting Cheng and Yifei Xu. The first movement of the work, “Ox Tail Dance,” was inspired by images of the ancient Ge Tian Shi people, who were said to dance in slow steps with ox tails in their hands. The second movement, “Hu Yuan Dance,” was inspired by the poem “Hu Xuan Lady,” written by the famous poet Bai Ju-Yi during the Tang Dynasty.
Dr. Chen’s Fire for 12 players, commissioned by the Chicago Center for Contemporary Composition, was premiered in 2019 by the Grossman Ensemble, led here by James Baker at the the University of Chicago.
The orchestral and chamber music of Chinese composer Chen Yi is atmospheric and extravagantly colorful, full of delicate percussion showers, swooping glissandos, and shivery bent notes. Much of it is chant-like, some of it is songful, and sometimes it is relentless and brutal.
—Jack Sullivan, American Record Guide
TANG POEMS CANTATA
Each of the four settings in Dr. Chen's Tang Poems Cantata employs folk song elements that originate in different parts of China, coupled with the painted scenes and emotional musings of the four poets, Li Bai, Li Shang-yin, Bai Juyi, and Chen Zi-ang. Performed here by the MDR Leipzig Radio Symphony Orchestra and Choir, conducted by Dennis Russell Davies.