The pieces played ranged chronologically from 1988 to 2013. The Philadelphia based musicians, Curtis 20/21, consisting of instrumentalists playing flutes, clarinets, violin, cellos, double bass, guitar, piano and various percussion instruments were conducted by their director, composer David Ludwig.
Each of the pieces required a different combination of musicians: the chamber music combinations included sextet (Near Distance), quintet (Happy Rain on a Spring Night), quartet (Qi), flute and piano duet (Three Bagatelles from China West) and octet (Sparkle). There was one solo piece, Shuo Chang for guitar.
The Curtis 20/21 musicians all presented Chen Yi’s complex and demanding scores with elegant, enthusiastic musicianship: each individual musician’s artistry was evident in a constantly, sometimes high-speed shifting of individual focus and seamless collaboration. Curtis 20/21’s skills in presenting technically difficult material were dazzling.
In the onstage discussion, Chen Yi began her conversation with David Ludwig, and by extension, the audience, with enthusiastic thanks. She praised Curtis 20/21 for their excellence in areas as diverse as technique, taste and “multilayered craftsmanship.” She was impressed by their youth and collegial spirit. Then, entirely without sentimentality, she thanked Columbia for the opportunity to return to present her music in the university where, as a student, she’d done much of her first composing in the West; she described herself as especially touched by the presence of Columbia professor Mario Davidovsky in the audience and she led the audience in brief applause-acknowledgment in Davidovsky’s direction as he responded with a smile and a wave.
Chen Yi spoke about some of her particular composing strategies – her use of traditional Chinese fingering and bowing techniques on Western string instruments, for instance, or her merging of Chinese melodic traditions with Western atonality – but the special value of her discussion lay in the feel of retrospection about her near quarter-century corpus of compositional output. “I’m happy,” she said, “When you don’t hear theory first, but music.” She prizes “compositional vigor,” but is more concerned that audiences experience “directness of understanding” in their response to her music. In the end, she emphasized, “Beauty is its own logic.”
Chen Yi concluded with a sweeping thanks to … it wasn’t clear whom: the Columbia of her past? Columbia now? Curtis 20/21? the audience? … and beamed, “You’re amazing!”
But it’s Chen Yi who’s amazing.
By her own account, her work brings together multiple and wildly divergent musical vocabularies. Her music combines elements of Western and Chinese music, folk and formal traditions, ancient and modern preoccupations. The resulting music isn’t simply a blend like fusion cuisine or a homogenous mix like children’s red and blue paints stirred together to make purple. It is, instead, Chen Yi’s own fully developed and unique imaginative landscape, a mature musical world of confident authority and absolute assurance.
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.
Chen Yi’s music is, in the best possible sense, powerful: it affirms. Musicians and audience alike, at the end of each piece, are strengthened in the continuing determination to do one’s best. The evening’s concluding work, Sparkle (1992), a rugged, intricately disciplined wildness of both melody and rhythm, felt like an exposition of new ways of putting sounds together to create music, an immersion in how layering and linearity can coexist. The work’s sudden end – too soon and, simultaneously, at the only possible right moment – was gorgeously big and exciting.
And Chen Yi’s music is generous: in both chest-pounding loudness and cerebral subtleties, she invites musicians and listeners alike into creativity.
At the end of the concert, Chen Yi was given beautiful flowers; she accepted the bouquet with evident surprise and delight, and then, as the audience cheered, she distributed individual blooms to the musicians onstage.
Composer Portraits Series: Chen Yi (December 2, 2017)
Miller Theatre at Columbia University School of the Arts, 2960 Broadway at 116th Street, in Manhattan
Running time: two hours including one intermission.