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.