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Composer’s New Piece Honors Kansas City’s Beloved Fountains

When the Kansas City Symphony and music director Michael Stern open their 2011-2012 season September 23rd through the 25th at the Kauffman Center’s Helzberg Hall they will also be inaugurating a series of commissions to be spread throughout the season. Chen Yi’s Fountains of KC is the first of three “water-themed” pieces commissioned by the Symphony – the “KC” referring not only to Kansas City but also to the new downtown Center that is causing such a stir these days. (Daniel Kellogg’s Water Music will be heard in March, and Stephen Hartke’s Muse of the Missouri in June.)

“I got inspiration from the gestures of fountains, from the way the water zooms and rises and falls,” says Chen, who in addition to being one of world’s most celebrated composers is also the Lorena Searcy Cravens/Millsap/Missouri Distinguished Professor of Composition at the UMKC Conservatory. She says she is familiar with a number of the fountains in Kansas City, especially those around the Country Club Plaza, but she doesn’t name any of them in her piece. “There are too many!”

Like Mussorgsky’s Pictures at an Exhibition, Chen’s piece features bridge sections that represent “promenades” around the city. “This will serve as the framework, as we go walking from one fountain to another, to enjoy the beauty,” she says. Her 10-minute piece will be the first new work to be heard in Helzberg Hall, and the three concerts that are sold out as of this writing. Chen says it was difficult not to think of other “fountain” pieces such as those by Respighi or the Impressionists, but that her main concern was to make a well-structured “overture” that shows off the different sections of the orchestra. “It’s a really straightforward piece, and you don’t really have a quiet moment.”

Chen is in great demand: Fountains is one of seven commissions she has to complete just this season alone. (Her catalog of works numbers around 100 compositions.) She also travels the world as guest professor in dozens of universities in the United States, Europe and Asia. She has become – along with her husband, composer Zhou Long – a distinguished fixture of the Conservatory staff, and she says that even though she could live off composition alone, she would never give up teaching. “I am happy to be a teacher,” she said of the dream that goes all the way back to her native China. “The teacher’s job and responsibility was a dream for me when I was a child. I always watched my primary school teachers: They were really hard but they were model teachers in the country. … Our teachers were very strict and yet they taught us how to become good people.”

Fountains of KC was commissioned by the Muriel McBrien Kauffman Foundation in support of the Friends of the UMKC Conservatory’s 2009 Crescendo Benefit Gala. It will be performed on a program that also includes Stravinsky’s Fireworks,Respighi’s The Pines of Rome and Beethoven’s “Emperor” Concerto, the latter featuring pianist Emanuel Ax as soloist.

For tickets to future Kansas City Symphony concerts call 816-471-0400 or go to www.kcsymphony.org.

Paul Horsley, Performing Arts Editor 

Paul studied piano and musicology at WSU and Cornell University. He also earned a degree in journalism, because writing about the arts in order to inspire others to partake in them was always his first love. After earning a PhD from Cornell, he became Program Annotator for the Philadelphia Orchestra, where he learned firsthand the challenges that non profits face. He moved to KC to join the then-thriving Arts Desk at The Kansas City Star, but in 2008 he happily accepted a post at The Independent. Paul contributes to national publications, including Dance Magazine, Symphony, Musical America, and The New York Times, and has conducted scholarly research in Germany, Austria and the Czech Republic (the latter on a Fulbright Fellowship). He also taught musicology at Cornell, LSU and Park University.



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