Yibai Chen: “To feel Shostakovich’s life”

At 22 years old, Yibai Chen has already won numerous international prizes. The most recent was the Queen Elisabeth Competition in 2022, in which he was awarded the second prize. The Chinese cellist agreed to meet us and tell us about his love for Belgium and his expectations for the two concerts he will be giving with the Belgian National Orchestra next season, on 21st October 2023 and 21st June 2024.

In 2022, you won the 2nd Prize in the Queen Elisabeth Competition (QEC), here in Belgium. Then, you went on tour with the Belgian National Orchestra (BNO) with 6 concerts throughout Belgium. In January 2023, you were back for a concert in Arlon, and now you’re playing with us again next October and in June 2024 at Bozar. What brings you back to Belgium?

I think that Belgium is fascinating, because I feel so inspired by the people, by nature, and for many other reasons, such as my host family. My host parents are incredibly nice people and they really left me a lot of great impressions and good memories. I really consider them as ‘real parents’. So I think I will love to be back in Belgium. 

We all know that candidates experience a lot of pressure during the QEC. Has this experience taught you how to deal with stress and pressure?

Yeah, for sure. I participated in some big competitions before, and every time, I’ve felt a lot of pressure and nervousness. But the QEC really created an atmosphere that made every candidate feel as comfortable as possible. I didn’t feel that nervous during the competition. Even on stage, I just really enjoyed it. So I wouldn’t say it taught me how to deal with stress, but actually how to live together with pressure, nervousness and all the negative feelings, and try to turn them into some of my energy on stage. That is what the competition taught me. And it brought me a lot of opportunities afterwards, in Belgium but also worldwide. So I must say it changed my life quite a bit.

What are you most excited about returning to Bozar in Brussels with the BNO?

Playing the same concerto that I played in the final of the QEC in the exact same venue will feel very special, and collaborating with the BNO again is of course my greatest pleasure, because I think the BNO is one of the best orchestras I’ve ever played with so far. They are very energetic, and what I like most is that on stage I can be flexible and do whatever I want. This is very important for an orchestra when playing with a soloist. In a concerto, it’s important to build a team, and they do it very well. I also know some of the principal players, like Olsi Leka, Marc Sabbah – they are all great soloists.

On 21 October, you will playing Shostakovich’s First Cello Concerto again, and which is considered to be one of the most difficult pieces in the cello repertoire. What do you find special about this concerto? 

I think the most difficult and special movement for me is the third movement: it’s a total cadenza, without the orchestra playing with you. So it’s the moment when you can speak for yourself and be totally alone to feel the loneliness. And yet you can create a kind of atmosphere and invite everyone to feel Shostakovich’s life. Also, all the themes from the other movements can be found in this movement. He made variations on those themes, he mixed them, blended them, and in the end it gets crazy, super crazy. After this utter craziness, the fourth movement begins with an ‘attacca’, which means you play non-stop, diving straight into to the last movement. The whole concerto contains all the negative emotions you can imagine: in other concertos, you have at least some hope and some nice feelings, but in this concerto there are fewer moments of hope – it’s mostly hopeless. And yet it ends on an E flat major chord, and I think Shostakovich wanted to tell us that after all the negative emotions we will all eventually return to a hopeful place, back to peace. I think this is what he wanted to convey through this music.

Why should people come to listen to this version of Shostakovich’s concerto?

I think it will be a very special moment for everyone to experience a bit of the same scenario as my final round in the QEC, and it will be interesting to see how much I’ve improved with this piece. I’ll also bring a different instrument this time: a cello made by Giuseppe Guadagnini, a famous name, and a very good one. It’s also a different orchestra, the BNO, so I think it’s interesting for people to see how I collaborate with another orchestra and another conductor [Hugh Wolff] on the same piece.

On 21 June 2024, you’ll be joining us for the Fête de la Musique concert, where you’ll perform the world premiere of Sehnsucht (which means “Longing” in German) by Belgian composer Piet Swerts, who also composed the compulsory work for the QEC in 1993. How do you prepare for a world premiere?

I would start by trying to understand the language of the composer, because music itself is a kind of language, and every composer has a different style. Then I would read through the score and play some interesting chords on the piano. That’s how you understand the kind of feeling you’re looking for and how it sounds like. When you play these chords on the piano, you must feel like you are the composer himself, trying to write this piece. You almost experience what kind of path or attitude he had in mind when he was composing the piece. Once you’ve learnt the score, the next step is to use your own imagination. For example, the title here means “Longing” – but longing for what? I think that’s how you can use your imagination to change your sound into this kind of ‘longing mode’.

And what does taking part in the Fête de la Musique mean to you?

I’m really enthusiastic, because the audience will mainly be composed of music lovers who are simply curious. So I think it’s a very good opportunity, because many people know more or less famous music and a bit of classical music, and I think it’s important to teach the audience how to listen to contemporary music and how to appreciate it.

How would you describe the audience at Bozar and in Belgium compared to what you’ve seen around the world?

The Belgian audience is probably the best: when you play, you really feel that they appreciate your music. They are not just being critical of your playing; they try to catch the nice moment that the performer creates on stage. And you can feel the whole atmosphere flowing with your music. It’s not just “They are the audience, and I’m the performer”, it’s more like we’re working together to get a nice result. And most importantly, after the performance they are incredibly enthusiastic and always applaud you warmly, no matter what happens. My final performance was especially memorable because they gave me a standing ovation. It’s a very, very special moment for every musician, because you can see how much they’ve been influenced by you or by the music, and they show you their respect in that way.

What is your deepest goal or ambition in making music?

As a musician, I want to create a very personal connection between the audience and the composer during the performance. So I don’t want people to listen to me per se, but I want them to listen to the composer, and feel what the music itself brings to them. I think this is what we should do as performers. It’s like our mission. I always try to remind myself that we have to respect the composers’ ideas, while keeping our own individuality. I’d say it’s like a spiritual connection between the audience, the composer and us.

Is there any message you'd like to pass on to the audience of the BNO?

I’ll try to do my best for you and leave a different impression from last year, and I hope you will feel something more in my music!


Who is Yibai Chen?

  • Born in 2001, in Shanghai, China.
  • Chose the cello after his mom, who is a traditional Chinese instrument player and a big fan of Yo-Yo Ma, gave him three options: the piano, the violin and the cello. He wanted the deepest sound, so he chose the cello.
  • Other instrument he would you like to learn: the piano.
  • Role model and inspiration: Yo-Yo Ma and his teacher Danjulo Ishizaka.
  • Favourite composer: Beethoven.
  • Best piece of advice he’s received: “Never look back”.
  • Words in Dutch or in French he learnt with his host parents: “bonjour, bonsoir, bonne nuit, félicitations, à tout à l’heure”…


Info & tickets for the concert on October 21.


By Thomas Clarinval