Sean Chen’s Boston Re-Debut

Sean Chen must be doing something right.

In the past two years, he has received awards from some of the highest-profiled international piano competitions, has released two CDs, and has performed in cities across the United States and Europe.

On Saturday evening, the Foundation for Chinese Performing Arts hosted Mr. Chen at New England Conservatory’s Jordan Hall in Boston — a concert marketed as the Boston debut for the 25-year-old pianist. Boston’s regular concert-goers should remember, however, Chen’s appearance at NEC honoring Hung-Kuan Chen, his teacher, last November. At this event, he stunned the widely-diverse audience with his own arrangement of Ravel’s La Valse — an arrangement that unites Ravel’s orchestral, duo piano, and solo piano versions. “Horowitz is turning over in his grave!” exclaimed one audience member, afterwards.

With this performance in mind, it was easy to feel the excitement in Jordan Hall for Mr. Chen on Saturday evening. After coming on stage wearing his signature “million dollar” smile, he started the program with a Bach Adagio. The piece was originally written for violin but was transposed while being arranged for piano. Mr. Chen explained afterwards that he had re-transposed it back to its original (violin) key so that it could be paired, tonally, with Bach’s Ricercar a 3. The intent was to present a Bach set without reverting to programming a prelude & fugue or a suite — the intent was noble and well-executed.

Next, Chen visited the repertoire of Debussy in a performance of Suite Bergamasque. This was an interesting choice, as Debussy’s early work is generally regarded as a student piece, only moderate in difficulty. However, Chen’s impeccable chord voicings allowed Debussian jazz harmonies to permeate Jordan Hall. The space is generally too wet, acoustically, for a solo piano to provide a clear sound for audiences. However, Chen’s clear pedaling and variety of touch made each movement crystalline and sentimental.

Next, a piece that went surprisingly well after Debussy was Aaron Copland’s Piano Variations, a masterpiece from the 1930s. The work was a product of Copland’s venture away from populism and into absolute music — a descriptor that goads many pianists into playing it too seriously. Chen, however, approached it masterfully & virtuosically. Through the eleven-minute swirl of harsh dissonances, characters were presented through the music and Chen’s expert ability to balance absolute music with excitement was highlighted. This could quite possibly be the greatest interpretation of the piece since Gil Kalish’s iconic recording.

After intermission, Chen presented a Scriabin waltz and all of the Chopin impromptus. Each was exceptionally performed, yet somewhat predictable. Even the decision to program the two composers, back to back, seemed outdated. The interpretation was too close with his competition roots: expertly crafted phrases and stunning technique, yet a lack of originality.

Chen’s arrangement of La Valse concluded the program. It is a work that is as stunning the second time as it was the first. Whatever lack of originality Chen had in the previous set, he made up for it in La Valse — the audience agreed, as he received cries of glee from the crowd. The work is a perfect pairing of Ravel’s pianistic showpiece with the richly-orchestrated instrumental version. Somehow, Chen achieved specific instrumental colors in his technique and the result was electrifying.

Perhaps my biggest problem with the performance, overall, was the programming. For one, nothing seemed to go well together (with the exception of Debussy and Copland). The first half felt more fresh & innovative than the second, but the two together just didn’t make sense. This generally non-cohesive programming seems to show Mr. Chen being pulled in two different directions — the way of finding himself as an artist vs. the way of the establishment. He is, after all, a product of international piano contests, which can be unforgiving in their rejection of individualism. His growth as an artist will certainly be closely watched by his many admirers, and either direction he goes in will be met with continued success.

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