Lis­ten Up James M. Keller re­views pi­anist Sean Chen and the Santa Fe Sym­phony


Pi­anist Sean Chen ex­udes charisma from the stage. He is granted con­sid­er­able footage in the re­cently re­leased film Vir­tu­os­ity, which chron­i­cles the hur­dles jumped by com­peti­tors at the 2013 Van Cliburn In­ter­na­tional Pi­ano Com­pe­ti­tion, where he won third prize, be­com­ing the first Amer­i­can to pro­ceed to that com­pe­ti­tion’s fi­nals since 1997. There, he comes across as a well-bal­anced and af­fa­ble char­ac­ter in a cast that tends to­ward the high-strung. When he ap­peared with the Santa Fe Sym­phony this past March as the soloist in Beethoven’s Pi­ano Con­certo No. 2, his in­ter­pre­ta­tion came alive in the more vir­tu­osic por­tions, par­tic­u­larly in a no-holds-barred ca­denza of his own com­po­si­tion. (He’ll as­sist that group again this May, as the solo pi­anist in Beethoven’s Choral Fan­tasy.) On Sept. 25, he of­fered an imag­i­na­tively con­structed solo recital to launch the 70th sea­son of the Los Alamos Con­cert As­so­ci­a­tion.

Fol­low­ing a set of pieces by Niko­lai Medt­ner, char­ac­ter­is­ti­cally stand­ing with one foot in the con­cert hall and the other in the palm court, Chen of­fered a fas­ci­nat­ing com­pare-and-con­trast ex­pe­ri­ence that high­lighted how two es­sen­tial pi­ano com­posers — Chopin and De­bussy — dealt dif­fer­ently with sim­i­lar mu­si­cal chal­lenges. Both of them wrote col­lec­tions of études to ex­er­cise spe­cific as­pects of pi­ano tech­nique, but they crafted these stud­ies as fully formed pieces of se­ri­ous mu­si­cal value. Chopin wrote two books of études, De­bussy one; pi­anists of­ten pro­gram an en­tire vol­ume of them. Chen, how­ever, clev­erly paired cor­re­spond­ing études from the two com­posers that fo­cused on the same chal­lenges of fin­ger­ing: chro­matic scales (Chopin’s Op. 10, No. 2; De­bussy’s No. 7) and then play­ing in thirds (Chopin’s Op. 25, No. 6; De­bussy’s No. 2), in sixths (Chopin’s Op. 25, No. 8; De­bussy’s No. 4), and in oc­taves (Chopin’s Op. 25, No. 10; De­bussy’s No. 5). Chen’s well-trained dig­its fell in just the right places. The Chopin items could tend to­ward flashi­ness, and the De­bussy pieces were not greatly im­bued with the magic they some­times re­veal, but it was a stim­u­lat­ing in­tel­lec­tual ex­pe­ri­ence all the same.

Af­ter in­ter­mis­sion, his tech­ni­cal acu­men en­sured firmly wrought per­for­mances of Ravel’s Sona­tine and Rach­mani­noff’s Sonata No. 2, if the Ravel was un­nec­es­sar­ily pumped up here and there through rhyth­mic ex­ag­ger­a­tions and the im­por­tant state­ments were not al­ways set off from the de­tails in the Rach­mani­noff. His most beau­ti­ful play­ing of the evening came in an encore, his own tran­scrip­tion of the An­dante from Bach’s Sonata No. 2 for Un­ac­com­pa­nied Vi­o­lin. The tran­scrip­tion it­self was skill­fully ac­com­plished, turn­ing a piece crafted for a sin­gle string in­stru­ment into one that lay id­iomat­i­cally on the broader range of the pi­ano and high­lighted con­tra­pun­tal niceties in taste­ful fash­ion. He ren­dered it with a well-plot­ted, at­trac­tively voiced per­for­mance.

On the whole, how­ever, I did not find the con­cert very plea­sur­able, and I am not at all sure that Chen was to blame for that. In past re­views, I have re­lated un­ease about the pi­ano used in the Los Alamos con­certs, feel­ing that pi­anists some­times seemed not to be quite in sync with the na­ture of this par­tic­u­lar in­stru­ment. Such was the case again. Con­cert pi­anists must be able to adapt to all sorts of in­stru­ments as they make their rounds, and some pi­anos are bound to suit their sen­si­bil­i­ties bet­ter than oth­ers. If they give a recital at a big-city con­cert hall, they may be able to try out sev­eral in­stru­ments and pick the one that most aligns with their per­sonal aes­thetic. In more re­mote lo­cales, the house pi­ano is likely to be the only choice.

The Los Alamos Con­cert As­so­ci­a­tion’s pi­ano is a Stein­way Model D —a stan­dard con­cert in­stru­ment. The se­ries’ artis­tic di­rec­tor, Ann McLaugh­lin, re­ports that af­ter some years of ne­glect it was com­pletely re­built by the Stein­way com­pany four years ago. Still,

Sean Chen of­fered a fas­ci­nat­ing com­pare-and-con­trast ex­pe­ri­ence that high­lighted how two es­sen­tial pi­ano com­posers — Chopin and De­bussy — dealt dif­fer­ently with sim­i­lar mu­si­cal chal­lenges.

I do not find my­self lov­ing this pi­ano, and yet again I got the dis­tinct im­pres­sion that the soloist was not on good terms with it, ei­ther. Chen may not be the most sub­tle of pi­anists, but nei­ther is he a banger. His sound was nonethe­less rather clan­gor­ous even at mod­er­ate vol­ume. It was rel­a­tively con­strained in va­ri­ety of tone color and dy­namic force, such that cli­maxes didn’t sound much dif­fer­ent from “busi­ness as usual.” It seemed as if there was some loose­ness in the pi­ano’s ac­tion, as if his at­tacks were not trans­mit­ted with com­plete ac­cu­racy to the ham­mers that were strik­ing the strings. Some of the high­est notes stuck out with the shrill­ness of a glock­en­spiel, as if the pi­ano was not evenly reg­u­lated in the top oc­taves. The tim­bre over­all suf­fered from a sheen or glare; in the Ravel, one wanted sun­glasses for the ears. In the course of the recital, I lis­tened from two widely sep­a­rated places in the au­di­to­rium, and it made no dif­fer­ence.

An in­di­vid­ual’s re­sponse to a pi­ano is per­sonal, and other lis­ten­ers may have a dif­fer­ent re­ac­tion to this one than I do. I would say, how­ever, that these were not prob­lem­atic is­sues when Chen played in Santa Fe last win­ter or when he per­formed in the Vir­tu­os­ity film; nei­ther do they sur­face on his CD ti­tled La Valse, re­leased in 2014 on the Stein­way & Sons la­bel — for which you can be sure he had his pick of the in­stru­ments that the com­pany had in stock. In the end, I just didn’t feel he was on the same team with the pi­ano.

The Santa Fe Sym­phony opened its sea­son at the Len­sic on Sept. 27 with Guillermo Figueroa, a can­di­date to be­come the group’s prin­ci­pal con­duc­tor, on the podium. Two short­ish sym­phonic ex­cerpts from op­eras got sturdy work­outs: Verdi’s Over­ture to La forza del destino (ku­dos for im­mac­u­lately at­tacked brass-plus-bas­soon chords at the open­ing — not easy), and Saint-Saëns’ Bachan­nale from Sam­son et Dalila. All the lat­ter re­ally re­quires is to be whipped up into a fu­rioso end­ing, and this Figueroa ac­com­plished, but he also in­vested the lyri­cal mid­dle sec­tion with a pleas­ing flow.

Mostly it was a con­cert about con­cer­tos. Itamar Zor­man was the soloist for Tchaikovsky’s Vi­o­lin Con­certo, in which his play­ing did not fore­tell a starry fu­ture. His fig­u­ra­tion could sound merely pro forma, his vi­brato was of­ten too lax to con­vey in­tense ex­pres­sion, his tim­bre could be hoarse, and var­i­ous tech­ni­cal niceties proved hap­haz­ard in ex­e­cu­tion. He brought to the piece about the same pas­sion one would ex­pect from some­body fill­ing out an in­sur­ance form.

Pi­anist Olga Kern saved the day with a per­for­mance of Rach­mani­noff’s Rhap­sody on a Theme of Pa­ganini that pro­claimed tech­ni­cal se­cu­rity, a sense of style, and a lot of piz­zazz in the more sparkling vari­a­tions. She in­fused the slower cen­tral sec­tion with po­etry, touch­ingly so in the melan­choly twelfth vari­a­tion (Tempo di min­uetto). The 18th vari­a­tion is the most fa­mous part of the piece and is much ex­tracted, as in­deed it was here when Kern re­turned to play just that ex­panse as an encore. (“That one’s for my man­ager,” Rach­mani­noff stated.) It seemed as if Kern im­posed a huge quan­tity of ru­bato on it, per­haps gild­ing the lily given how sen­ti­men­tal that part al­ready is. Then I went home and lis­tened to Rach­mani­noff’s clas­sic record­ing, which turned out to be pretty much the same in that re­gard.

Sean Chen

Guillermo Figueroa

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