Concert Review: Pianist Sean Chen — A Musician of Impressive Maturity and Artistry

A critic can only wish pianist Sean Chen well in what bodes to be a spectacular career.

Pianist Sean Chen. Photo: Ellen Appel

Pianist Sean Chen — he is a superb performer of the music of Ravel. Photo: Ellen Appel

By Susan Miron

The young pianist Sean Chen has a lot going for him. Presented Saturday night at Jordan Hall under the auspices of the Foundation for Chinese Performing Arts, Chen was the 2013 Crystal Award Winner of the Fourteenth Van Cliburn International Piano Competition. People could be seen at intermission wondering just what a Crystal Award was, even Googling it, all to little avail. Apparently, it’s akin to third prize or what a bronze medal used to be. Besides winning awards, Chen also has the looks – and hair – of a young movie star. His ebullient personality lights up the stage the instant he walks onto it, all smiles, beautiful teeth.

From his first two Bach pieces, Adagio, BMV 968 and Ricercar a 3 from Das Musikalisches Opfer, Chen made the impression of being an unusually intelligent concert programmer. While the composers on his program were well-known, the pieces were not the usual suspects, and they often threw a new light on their creators. The Bach Adagio is actually a transcription of the first movement of his Sonata No. 3 in C Major for Solo Violin. This piece (and one other) had the dubious benefit of program notes by Michael Cummings, while the rest of the information on the music was taken straight from Wikipedia, “the free encyclopedia.” This was an embarrassing choice in a Jordan Hall recital sponsored by a prestigious organization.

The Bach Ricercare and Adagio both received intelligent, well-voiced readings. Mr. Chen contributed what could be called little introductions before each of the pieces played. This was not a good thing, despite the pianist’s enthusiasm for each of the works. Apparently, many audiences like to hear the artist speak, but certain ground rules should be followed. The talk should be as intelligent and illuminating as the playing, well enunciated and audible to all. These ground rules have not, in my experience, been the norm, nor was it the case on Saturday. Mr. Chen was not doing himself or the audience any favors with his seemingly off-the-cuff commentary from the stage. He is certainly bright and informed enough to write his own program notes, and should consider doing so.

This said, he played the Debussy “Suite Bergamasque” masterfully. His “Clair de Lune” shimmered, his “Prelude,” “Menuet,” and “Passepied” were dazzlingly executed, full of colors and nuance. Debussy began composing this suite in 1890, but he did not publish it until 1905. The rest of the Suite is played rarely, and it was a great pleasure to hear it performed so well. (I know the Suite intimately, having transcribed it for harp).


Chen gave Aaron Copland’s “Piano Variations” (1930) an ideal performance. This is a piece that seems to go in and out of fashion; I haven’t seen it programmed in a quite a while. It was wonderful to hear such an intelligent performance.

After intermission, Alexander Scriabin’s rarely-heard “Valse in A-flat Major,” Op. 38 was given a knock-out performance. This appears, along with Ravel’s “La Valse,” on Chen’s new CD (for Steinway & Sons), which I recommend highly. (The other major set of waltzes on his CD are Ravel’s “Valses nobles et sentimentales.” Three Impromptus (Nos. 1, 2, and 3) by Frederic Chopin followed. What a rarity to hear these pieces! Why are they performed so infrequently? They were just lovely! The very famous “Fantaisie-Impromptu,” Op.66 followed, and received a beautiful, romantic – but not too much so – performance. All very nice.

And then – the absolute highlight of the evening – Chen’s own arrangement of Maurice Ravel’s “La Valse.” Working from three sources – the lush orchestral score as well as the two arrangements Ravel did for 2 pianos and piano solo, Chen, who also composes, created a masterwork. I had enjoyed everything before this, but was nevertheless astonished by the pianist’s musical fireworks at the service of music that so richly deserves them. Chen is a superb Ravel player, judging from half of his CD (the other half is dedicated to Scriabin), and performs with real maturity and artistry. I loved both his arrangement and his obvious affection for Ravel’s music. A critic can only wish him well in what bodes to be a spectacular career.

Susan Miron, a harpist, has been a book reviewer for over 20 years for a large variety of literary publications and newspapers. Her fields of expertise were East and Central European, Irish, and Israeli literature. Susan covers classical music for The Arts Fuse and The Boston Musical Intelligencer. She is part of the Celtic harp and storytelling duo A Bard’s Feast with renowned storyteller Norah Dooley and plays the Celtic harp at the Cancer Center at Newton Wellesley Hospital.

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