It is good to hear music by Chinese composers, besides the now ubiquitous Tan Dun, who suffered under the Cultural Revolution and came to maturity later in the West. Chen Yi, the subject last Tuesday of both a European premiere in the Prom and of a valuable Composer Portrait programme, is 50 years old. Forced into hard labour, but also into awareness of aspects of her heritage of which she had previously remained ignorant, she spent eight years as concert mistress of the Beijing Opera company in her home town of Guangzhou.
After the political thaw she enrolled at the Central Conservatory of Music in Beijing, and subsequently, like Tan, studied composition at New York's Columbia University. To judge from the three pieces in the Portrait concert - performed with dedication by Guildhall music students, and in one case by the composer herself, who sang in the now familiar Beijing Opera style - Chen Yi's music is somewhat different from Tan's. Though based on the same ingredients: the characteristic scales, the swooping, skirling vocal techniques and the use of Chinese percussion instruments - her compositions have more rhythmic regularity and fibre.
Her Percussion Concerto, written for Evelyn Glennie and the Singapore Symphony Orchestra in 1998, naturally deploys a battery of percussion instruments, though there are many standard Western ones in the mix and important contributions from orchestral percussionists as well as Glennie herself. In the first movement, after an atmospheric opening, solo marimba plays fast passages in rhythmic unison with the strings, and there is eventually a furious coda.
In the second, Glennie sings, in the Beijing Opera manner (I've no idea how, given her deafness, she pitches the notes), an 11th-century Chinese poem while playing. The string accompaniment here is especially evocative; in the concerto as a whole, there is disappointingly little for the woodwind and brass to do, but the string writing is ravishing. In the finale, a relentless moto perpetuo leads to a lively percussion cadenza and a triumphant conclusion.
Less attention-seeking, but also less individual and memorable than Tan's output, Chen Yi's essentially more Westernised music is nevertheless worth hearing. Glennie - dressed in vivid red, her array of Chinese gongs lit in almost equally vivid yellow - did what seemed an excellent job; while outgoing as always, she seemed less histrionic, more focused, than she is sometimes.
Yan Pascal Tortelier, replacing Leonard Slatkin, conducted the BBC Symphony Orchestra in most of the originally advertised programme, including a persuasive account, with the BBC Symphony Chorus on slightlywoozy form, of Ravel's complete Daphnis and Chloe.Reuse content