Ixi Chen Plays a New Melody

Concert:Nova challenges how we experience classical music thanks to Chen.

Thanks to Ixi Chen, Concert:Nova challenges how we experience classical music.


Photograph by Angie Lipscomb

You have your hand in so many areas of Cincinnati’s soundscape. Why have you put so much of your focus in that arena?

Seeing what the classical scene is missing, seeing what education is missing, has been the driver. Concert:Nova, which is now in its 15th season, was born out of the recognition that people were afraid to come to Music Hall. The fact that I had friends who were always saying, “Wow, Concert:Nova is so cool. You play in the symphony. What a cool job.” When I would say, “Hey, you wanna come this weekend?” they’re like, “No, no, no. No, that’s not for me.” Concert:Nova, at first, started as a way of giving people a gateway to classical music, especially the younger demographic.

How does Concert:Nova achieve this?

When you go to an opera, when you go to a ballet, there’s often a visual aspect. With the static nature of orchestra, we miss a lot of that visual stimulation. [For example], there’s a piece written by Stravinsky called “The History of the Soldier.” It’s a very Faustian story about a soldier who sells his soul to the devil. So we took the old scripts and rewrote it. There are three actors: One is a mute princess, one is the devil, one is a soldier. Most of the action takes place between the soldier and the devil. In our case, we chose to shine a light on PTSD and told the story uniquely from the princess’s point of view. We wanted to bring in more modern themes that people can relate to.

How have audiences reacted to these changes?

Having the time before and after a concert was a wonderful way to actually hear what their experiences were. [We hear] surprise, delight. I think sometimes people hated things, but to elicit some sort of thoughtful engagement there was the key. Part of our mission is thought-provoking performances. There was one on the music of John Cage, where one piece was four minutes of silence, and the piece was everything that was happening around you, and people hated that. They were really uncomfortable with just sitting there. One of the pieces in the program was the musicians just watching the audience. People took out popcorn. We’re looking at the audience and having this live sort of interplay, and that was it. It was another three or four minutes, and that was really uncomfortable. [People said] “No, that’s not music.” So then the discussion of “What is music? What constitutes art?” was pretty fascinating.

Are you drawing a new crowd to the symphony?

Absolutely. There was a lot of comments like, “Oh, you know what? We only could have found this in New York.” I could probably give you a good list of people who are converts to the symphony. I’m really happy about that and just to kind of bring that elitism down, where people aren’t in tuxedos.

What makes you the right person to change Cincinnati’s soundscape?

There’s the holistic approach I like to take with everything, that philosophy of everything comes together. I’ve always been curious about people. I have a Taiwanese background, but we lived in Chicago, and I was raised on the West Coast near San Francisco. My husband is half Swedish. I think just feeling our global connectedness and being able to act regionally on it is pretty unique. I didn’t grow up here and stay here and raise my family here, but I lived in Europe; and I think this love of understanding other cultures, understanding other people, knowing about traditions, always being curious about what the world has to offer [makes me the right person for the job]. Both my international awareness and my love of living here is a good pairing.

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