UMKC Composer Named Among Top Arts Group

Chen Yi to be inducted into American Academy of Arts and Letters
Yi Chen at home

Chen Yi, Lorena Searcy Cravens/Millsap/Missouri Distinguished Professor of Composition at the University of Missouri-Kansas City, will be inducted into the American Academy of Arts and Letters. Chen is one of 11 new members who will be inducted in May. 

The American Academy of Arts and Letters was founded in 1898 as an honor society of the country’s leading architects, artists, composers and writers. Members have included Theodore Roosevelt, John Singer Sargent and Mark Twain, and currently Henry Louis Gates Jr., Maya Lin, Frank Gehry, Tony Kushner, Calvin Trillin and Joyce Carol Oates. The Academy’s 250 members are elected for life.

Chen has achieved international renown as a prolific composer who blends Chinese and Western traditions, transcending cultural and musical boundaries. The Academy honored her with the Charles Ives Living Award in 2001, intended to provide an American composer an income of $100,000 a year for two years “for the purpose of freeing a promising talent from the need to devote his or her time to any employment other than music composition.”

Born in China, Chen received bachelor’s and master’s degrees from the Central Conservatory in Beijing, and the Doctor of Musical Arts degree from Columbia University in New York.

Chen began playing the piano at age three and the violin when she was four.

“Both of my parents were medical doctors who loved classical music,” says Chen. “But my studies were interrupted during the Cultural Revolution when I was a teenager. After almost two years of hard labor in the countryside, I went back to my home city in 1970 to play the violin as the concertmaster in the orchestra for Beijing Opera performance.”

She was the first woman to receive a M.A. in music composition from the Central Conservatory of Music in Beijing. Chen went on to serve as Composer in Residence of the Women’s Philharmonic, the vocal ensemble Chanticleer, and Aptos Creative in San Francisco, supported by the Meet The Composer’s New Residences program. At the end of her three-year residency, she became the first woman in the United States to give a whole evening of multimedia concert with her symphonic and choral works in 1996.  

She has received fellowships and commissioning awards from the Guggenheim Foundation (1996), Fromm Foundation at Harvard University (1994), Koussevitzky Music Foundation at the Library of Congress (1997), and National Endowment for the Arts (1994). She was a Pulitzer Prize finalist with Si Ji for orchestra in 2006.

Chen joined UMKC in 1998 and is dedicated to inspiring students.

“I love working with student composers because the feedback between all of us is the more inspiring and stimulating,” says Chen.  “I have also worked closely and extensively with my UMKC colleagues and students during the past 20 years, with many new music projects and cultural exchange programs. I think that we have grown together and made a contribution to our community. I feel extremely grateful to our Conservatory for the great support given to me.”

In addition to electing new members as vacancies occur, the Academy seeks to foster and sustain an interest in Literature, Music, and the Fine Arts by administering over 70 awards and prizes, exhibiting art and manuscripts, funding performances of new works of musical theater, and purchasing artwork for donation to museums across the country.

Published: Mar 7, 2019

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