Fort Worth — Sean Chen’s recital, which opened the PianoTexas Festival on Tuesday, was a revelation. Usually, any gab we get from the artist is best kept to a few words, if that. Some local performers deliver tedious tomes, hardly noticing the snoring in the audience or the universally disparaging comments from Criticland. But such was not the case when Sean Chen—the Crystal Award Winner (third place) at the 2013 Van Cliburn International Piano Competition—brought his considerable star power and pianistic fireworks to the festival opening.
His informal commentary was much like you might encounter visiting him in his living room. It opened his personality to us and we were able to look past the prodigiously gifted image, the gloriously tousled mop and the megawatt smile. What was revealed under all that glitz was a spunky twentysomething boy-next-door with something interesting and personal to say about what he was going to play. He is passionate about music and has the intelligence, and chops, to play anything he wants. He was charming instead of pedantic. There was an “ah shucks,” off-the-cuff quality to his narrative that banished any preconceived notions we had about the “young genius.”
Nice to meet you, Sean.
His program demonstrated why he has won or placed in dozens of competitions. His playing is clean and the technical virtuoso passages are astounding to witness. His performance of Aaron Copland’s Piano Variations was definitive musically and amazing technically (especially the flurry of widely spaced octaves near the end).
He said it was the first contemporary piece he learned and you have to wonder why. It could only be given to a student whose technique was perfected, which begs the question of why didn’t he get more contemporary music along the way? It certainly suits him.
Mozart (B flat sonata K. 333), Bach (an Adagio and Ricercar of his own devising) and three Chopin Impromptus, all were played with the perfection that makes his performances. (Chopin were No. 1 Op. 29; No. 2, Op. 36; and No. 4, Op. 66).
A reflection on the Copland and why his performance was so striking: This work was written in 1930, probably before his parents were born. While it is “contemporary” and “20th century,” it had to be at least 50 years old when he learned it. Thus, in his experience, it was old. Copland’s atonal and sharply dissonant score was not something new and revolutionary when Chen started to learn it, as it was for those of us in that earlier generation. This is partially serial and partially octatonic piece that purposely explores dissonance in a hierarchy of its shock value to the listener. But it wasn’t new or even revolutionary when Chen learned it. In fact, it was a bit old-fashioned.
“His generation gets it,” a fine musician in the audience said. “We had to absorb it before we could learn it. He started with the language already in his DNA.”
Copland’s modernist musical experimental language was as much a part of Chen‘s heritage as Beethoven’ innovations that so shocked his contemporaries or even Ravel’s complex and astounding take on tonality in his 1920 era La Valse, which ended the program.
(Chen played his own arrangement of La Valse, which is probably three steps of difficulty beyond Ravel’s own nearly impossible arrangement.)
One comment: My criticism of his playing from the Cliburn, unfortunately, remains a concern. He doesn’t have an overall plan about the music, especially in the layering of the dynamics. Every piece has a loudest moment and a softest moment and the rest of the work has to fit in between. Chen doesn’t demonstrate that he understands this important setting of the margins. Most of the loud portions are all at the same level, whereas subtly tiered dynamics would be a great improvement.
» Here is the remaining schedule of public performances at the PianoTexas Festival. All events are at Texas Christian University's PepsiCo Recital Hall, except for the concert with an asterisk, which is in Ed Landreth Auditorium. Look for reviews of these concerts on TheaterJones:
7:30 p.m. Saturday, June 14: Alon Goldstein and the Harrington String Quartet
7:30 p.m. Sunday, June 15: Young Artists Concerto Evening with the Fort Worth Symphony
7:30 p.m. Tuesday, June 17: Alexander Shtarkman
*7:30 p.m. Saturday, June 21: Benefit Concert with Joyce Yang and the Fort Worth Symphony
7:30 p.m. Sunday, June 22: Paul Badura-Skoda
7:30 p.m. Tuesday, June 24: TCU Faculty Chamber Music Concert
7:30 p.m. Saturday, June 28: Chen Hung-Kuan
7:30 p.m. Sunday, June 29: Young Artists Concerto Evening with the Fort Worth Symphony