Connecting Chapel Hill to China

A woman in a dress plays the grand piano.

Like many of her music faculty colleagues, Clara Yang divides her time between the classroom and the stage. The UNC Associate Professor of Music balances the demands of teaching a full piano studio and advising students with her own impressive musical career as a guest artist and soloist. “As a professional musician, I really enjoy doing different things,” says Clara. “It makes your life a lot more interesting.”

This fall, Clara is learning a brand new concerto by the renowned Chinese composer Chen Yi that she’ll perform with the China Philharmonic Orchestra both in Beijing and Chapel Hill. Titled Four Spirits, the CPA-commissioned work depicts the four spiritual animals of ancient Chinese legend: the Blue Dragon in the east, the White Tiger in the west, the Red Phoenix in the south, and the Black Xuanwu (a turtle/snake hybrid) in the north.

Chen Yi began writing the work for Clara last winter after they met in person at the composer’s Kansas City home. Though the two had communicated over email for some time, Clara admits to being nervous about meeting a composer who she so admired. However that anxiety dissipated the moment Chen Yi greeted her at the door. “It was as though we knew one another for a long time,” recalls Clara. “Chen Yi is so easy going. I immediately felt comfortable.” The two got to know one another and forge a real connection that continued to grow as they corresponded in the months to come.

“To have a concerto written for me by such a renowned composer is a great honor. I love this piece and I can’t wait to share it with others.”


Fast forward to the start of the school year this September when Clara received the finished work. One of the things that first struck her about the music is how descriptive and intuitive it is. “When you hear the dragon, you’ll immediately know it,” explains Clara. “Right off the bat you can imagine the dragon swirling in the sky…It makes this grand appearance and the piano makes that clear with these perfectly crafted passages.” Each movement brings out the meaning and character of the spirit animal it honors.

Clara is excited to hear the work with a full orchestra for the first time when she travels to Beijing in November. Her parents and husband will join her at the Forbidden City Concert Hall for the piece’s world premiere with the China Philharmonic. Then she will reunite with the orchestra on December 8 for the U.S. premiere of Four Spirits in Memorial Hall. You can bet Clara’s UNC students will be in the audience cheering her on as will composer Chen Yi. “To have a concerto written for me by such a renowned composer is a great honor,” reflects Clara. “I love this piece and I can’t wait to share it with others.”

Subscribe to Our Email List

Sign Up