On his Facebook page, Sean Chen, 24, has posted the enlarged photo of a fortune cookie message: “The world without music would be madness.”
“I’m not sure if that’s actually true,” he told us. “But I don’t know of any culture in which music doesn’t play an important part. Music is such an integral part of humanity.”
Born in Florida and raised in Oak Park, California, Chen is based in New Haven these days, where he is pursuing his Artist Diploma at the Yale School of Music. He is a graduate of The Juilliard School, where he was the 2010 winner of Juilliard’s Gina Bachauer Piano Competition. He was a semifinalist at the Leeds competition in 2012, the second-prize winner at the 2011 Seoul International Music Competition, and has presented solo recitals in New York, Miami, Indianapolis, Los Angeles and Taipei. In April of this year, he was chosen by the American Pianists Association as the 2013 Christel DeHaan Classical Fellow after a yearlong competition.
Chen can’t actually remember starting to play the piano—he thinks he was about four—but remembers clearly that there was competition from a video game. “I was too young to know what really was going on [with piano],” he says. “But I was pretty happy playing Mario.”
That interest in computers and games hasn’t faded over time. Among his interests are “a very compelling anime series” (he prefers the remade version) called Fullmetal Alchemist, he says. “The plot is on the level of a captivating young adult adventure novel. With animation, whether it be Japanese, computer-generated or traditional, the artist has so much freedom in expressing ideas, symbols or characters without being limited to physical reality.”
And music enters into his interest in video games, animation and film. “I also have always been fascinated with film scores—more specifically, with video game music. A good soundtrack can be vitally important to the whole experience.” In 2012, he composed the score for a short film, Farewell Jimmy, about a mobster and his last job. (The film was a project of students at the American Film Institute’s conservatory.)
“Farewell Jimmy was a very interesting project, to score just a few minutes of music for an intense psychological drama.” The results were powerful, he feels—and he says he would “definitely like to do more” of his own compositions.
Meanwhile, back at the piano, Chen talks about favorite composers and performers.
“I’ve always enjoyed Ravel and Scriabin, mostly for their very special senses of color, especially on the piano,” he says. “They’re so difficult to play sometimes, but so worth it.” As for other pianists he admires, he mentions liking “the kind of things Pierre-Laurent Aimard does programming-wise. And I’ve always loved listening to my former teacher Jerome Lowenthal play. He’s got a wonderful sound and legato, but most importantly a spirit for the music.”
This isn’t Chen’s first visit to Texas. “I was an audience member for the whole competition four years ago. I’m looking forward to going to Fort Worth again!” And because he has lived both in New York and New Haven, two cities locked in eternal battle over pizza bragging rights—we had to ask: which city’s slice does he prefer? Chen’s answer is diplomatic…up to a point: “Wooster Square [in New Haven] has some pretty good pizza, but I still like New York’s better.”
◊ Here is a video of Sean Chen performing a Ravel waltz last year:
Sean Chen's Van Cliburn International Piano Competition Repertoire:
Preliminary Recital, Phase I
BACH French Suite No. 5 in G Major, BWV 816
BARTÓK Three Etudes, op. 18
CHOPIN Three Mazurkas, op. 59
SCRIABIN Sonata No. 5, op. 53
Preliminary Recital, Phase II
BEETHOVEN Sonata No. 29 in B-flat Major, op. 106 ("Hammerklavier")
LIGETI Etude XIII: L’escalier du diable
BRAHMS Variations on an Original Theme, op. 21, no. 1
RAVEL Valses nobles et sentimentales
STRAVINSKY Trois movements du Pétrouchka
BRAHMS Piano Quintet in F Minor, op. 34
BEETHOVEN Piano Concerto No. 5 in E-flat Major, op. 73
ACHMANINOV Piano Concerto No. 3 in D Minor, op. 30
◊ To see a slideshow of all of the competitors, with bios and links to our profiles of them, click here.