The Gang of Four Invades Orange County

Chen Yi speaks for Chinese music reborn

"In 1970," Chen Yi remembers, "Madame Mao had composed a revolutionary opera, a big piece that needed a Western-style orchestra. But all the Western-style musicians in Beijing had been fired and sent to prison camps, so they needed a new orchestra, and very quickly. So suddenly I had a job playing my violin, out in the open! Not only that: I had to compose a lot of music, very quickly: overtures, dance pieces, songs. Now I had a job, and most of the other composers came to work with me in the Beijing Opera as well. We had a company that toured through many cities, and that made life a little better.

By 1977 the Cultural Revolution was over and the Chinese conservatories opened again. Chen Yi had a huge pile of compositions to submit, from the music she had composed for the operas. "No, it wasn't very good," she says, "and no, I don't want to use any of it now, but everybody was amazed that I had such a large pile. Still, I had to start at the beginning, to learn orchestration techniques and harmonies and to do all the straight things that I had been doing just by instincts. In 1986 the Chinese Central Philharmonic gave a whole concert of my work. But I had gone as far as I could at the Beijing Conservatory, so I applied to Columbia and was accepted. I got a visa in one week—imagine that!

"Also I got to travel with Tan Dun, on a project to collect folk music in Chinese villages. We would travel some distance on a bus, and then we would walk, maybe 90 miles, to where there was a singer or a musician that we could record."

This was the same task Bartók undertook, recording the folk music of his native Hungary, and it helps to define the particular strength in the music of Chen Yi. Listen to her latest disc: Momentum, a 13-minute orchestral work on Sweden's BIS label, or the Chinese Myths on New Albion; not packaged exotica on the Rimsky-Korsakov level, these are strong, confrontational pieces in which the strands of Chen Yi's own concerns stand forth in stark relief.

The Pacific Symphony presents Diary of a Revolution, with works by Bright Sheng, Tan Dun and Wan Zuquiang, at the Irvine Barclay Theatre, 4242 Campus Dr., Irvine, (949) 854-4646. Mon., 8 p.m. $30-$40; the world premiere of Chen Yi's ballad, Dance and Fantasy, featuring Yoyo Ma, at the Orange County Performing Arts Center, 600 Town Center Dr., Costa Mesa, (714) 556-2787. March 10-11, 8 p.m. $25-$110.
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