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Music Review: Cliburn medalist wows the crowd at McAfee Concert Hall

chenhairThe well-coiffed one was in Nashville on Thursday night. I’m talking about pianist Sean Chen, who was in town to present Belmont University’s annual Woods Piano Concert Series at McAfee Concert Hall.

A 24-year-old California native, Chen made news in June, when he became the first American pianist in 16 years to advance to the finals of the Van Cliburn International Piano Competition. Chen impressed the judges with his dazzling technique and penchant for big repertoire – he proved equal to the challenges of both Beethoven’s “Hammerklavier” Sonata and Rachmaninoff’s Piano Concerto No. 3. He was also an audience favorite at the Cliburn, endearing himself to the crowd with his shaggy, mop-top do and megawatt smile.

There was plenty of razzle dazzle in Chen’s Nashville recital, especially during the concert’s first half, which featured all four of Chopin’s quicksilver Impromptu along with Chen’s own Earl Wild-like arrangement of Ravel’s La Valse. Chen’s proclivity for playing music on a grand scale was reflected in his rendition of Prokofiev’s epic Piano Sonata No. 8 in B-flat major, Op. 84.

His first order of business, though, was to demonstrate his prowess as a pianistic tone painter. Scriabin’s Valse in A-flat major, which opened the program, was ideally suited to that purpose. This is no Viennese waltz, but rather an impression of a waltz – a “dream-vision” is how Scriabin described it – in which the dancers are seen waltzing through the reflective and distorted prism of a kaleidoscope. Chen indulged in this soundscape, playing the music with the languor of a nocturne.

He gave Chopin’s four Impromptu polished performances. Nevertheless, I felt his renditions seemed a bit perfunctory. This music is so familiar that it all but demands that the pianist make a personal statement. If Chen had anything original or idiosyncratic to say through this music, I didn’t hear it. Moreover, it didn’t help matters that he seemed to be holding back. I wanted more fleetness and fluidity in both the Impromptu No. 1 in A-flat and the Fantasie-Impromptu No. 4 in C-sharp minor, and I wanted more poetic drama in the Impromptu No. 2 in F-sharp major. Chen is a young pianist, and he will no doubt play this music better as he grows with it.

The first half ended with Chen’s own daredevil arrangement of Ravel’s La Valse. In pre-performance remarks, Chen noted that he compiled this piece from three sources – Ravel’s orchestral score for La Valse along with the composer’s arrangements of the piece for two pianos and piano solo. The result was a piece filled with all manner of dazzling effects and artifice – dark, rippling bass tremolos, cascading octaves and glistening, double-fisted glissandos. Chen put on quite a pyrotechnical display, blazing through this fiendishly difficult music with technical precision and fiery emotion.

After intermission, the serious business of Prokofiev’s Sonata No. 8 commenced. Composed in 1944, this was the last of Prokofiev’s “war sonatas,” and it is among the longest and most interpretively challenging of his works. Chen played the long first movement with keen concentration, bringing out all of this complex music’s lyricism and turbulence. He was no less successful in capturing the sweet melancholy of the central Andante and the impish fury of the finale.

At the end of the performance, Chen received a thunderous ovation from an adoring crowd that consisted mostly of college-age music majors. Chen figured that this audience would probably stay all night if encouraged with virtuoso encores. So he went in the opposite direction, playing a short, easy prelude that Ravel composed for a sight-reading competition. It would have been inappropriate to shout for more encores after a work of such delicate intimacy, so the crowd dispersed, chatting happily into the night about Chen’s fingers, if not his hair.

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About John Pitcher

John Pitcher is the chief classical music, jazz and dance critic as well as co-founder of ArtsNash. He has been a classical music critic for the Washington Post, the Rochester (NY) Democrat and Chronicle, National Public Radio’s Performance Today (NPR), ArtNowNashville.com and the Nashville Scene. His writings about music and the arts have also appeared in Symphony Magazine, American Record Guide and Stagebill Magazine, among other publications. Pitcher earned his master’s degree in journalism from Columbia University’s Graduate School of Journalism, where he studied arts writing with Judith Crist and Phyllis Garland. His work has received the New York State Associated Press award for outstanding classical music criticism.