Chen Yi | University of Portland

Chen Yi

Chen Yi, one of the world's most renowned classical composers, now teaches at the University of Missouri's Conservatory of Music in Kansas City. Born in Guangzhou, China, in 1953, she spent two of her teenage years in forced labor during China's Cultural Revolution — "we climbed up and down a mountain carrying rocks," she has said, "I carried more than 100 pounds on my back, and would go up and down sometimes 20 times a day." But she had her violin with her, and while assigned to play revolutionary songs for local farmers she practiced and improvised — her first compositions. She was then suddenly named concertmaster of Guangzhou's opera company. In 1986 she left China for New York, and has since become internationally famous for, among other works, her Piano Concerto, Chinese Myths Cantata, and a cello concerto written specifically for the great cellist Yo-Yo Ma.

Chen Yi (Chen is her family name and Yi is what Westerners would call her first name) and her two siblings were born to parents who were both doctors, both Christians, and both interested in Western music and culture. She started music lessons at age three, and by age 13 was already an accomplished violinist. But China's "Cultural Revolution" in 1966 changed everything. Mao Tse-Tung's Red Guards ransacked the family home, seized all Western music, and sent Chen to a labor camp. She practiced the violin silently when she could, she learned to riff on the "acceptable" songs she was assigned to play, and even now, years later, evinces no bitterness, saying that those years taught her a great deal about rural China and its folk music.

When Mao's wife Jiang Qing decreed that Western instruments should be added to the orchestras of China's traditional opera troupes, Chen was pulled from the camp and made concertmaster of Guangzhou's opera company. She then studied at the Central Conservatory of Music in Beijing, became the first woman in China to receive a master's degree in composition, and finally left China for New York to study at Columbia University, where she received her doctoral degree in 1993.

Since then she has been resident composer with many entities — the Women's Philharmonic Orchestra in San Francisco and the a cappella chorus Chanticleer among them — and a teacher of composition at the Peabody Conservatory in Baltimore and the University of Missouri at Kansas City. As a composer she is especially admired for the creative ways she has merged Asian and Western musical structures, working with Hungarian folk music, American jazz, and Celtic music, among many other styles.

Chen became a United States citizen in 1999, and in 2001 she was honored with the American Academy of Arts and Letters Charles Ives Award, an honor that allowed her to compose full-time. She has twice graced the University of Portland as a guest of the performing and fine arts department, and the University community is delighted to add her name as a distinguished member of the Class of 2009.