Review: Sean Chen Plays Brahms 2

Rising young pianist soars with Philharmonic

By: Henry Upper, for The Republic – 5/3/18 7:26 PM

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The Columbus Indiana Philharmonic has been the same high-quality orchestra each time I have heard it. It seems to be constant, but we know that as other waters flow on, personnel of the orchestra changes from season to season, even concert to concert. Ultimately it is the superb leadership of the conductor, David Bowden, that constantly gives it its consistent high quality.

This high quality continued for this concert where he programmed an extremely varied and interesting repertoire. The first half of the concert was totally an American musical experience with Hobgoblin from Symphonic Sketches by George Whitefield Chadwick, an American composer born in the 19th century, and two works by Aaron Copland, probably this country’s greatest orchestral composer — “Letters from Home” and the famous “Appalachian Spring Suite.”

After intermission, one of the most outstanding young pianists I have ever heard came to the stage to perform, with the orchestra, the Brahms Concerto No. 2 in B-flat Major, op. 83. Sean Chen is a 29-year old-pianist in the early years of a significant performance career after having won prestigious competitions and awards.

These, among many, have included first prize, the Christel DeHaan Classical Fellowship of the American Pianist Association; third prize in the Van Cliburn International Piano Competition; and the Leonore Annenberg Fellowship Fund for the Performing Arts. More about the remarkably talented young musician later.

Now, let us return to the American experience. The Chadwick Hobgoblin from Symphonic Sketches is the third movement of the Symphonic Sketches of 1895-1904. It is a lighthearted, frolicking movement full of joy with some touches of folk melodies or tunes brought to our country by immigrants finding a new life of fun and freedom.

The orchestra brought lightness and lilt with great contrasts of color. Bowden brought the brass and woodwind sections to the fore and gave the work the fun of what could be imagined as an outdoor party in summer. The horns were particularly good with plenty of well-played trumpets and other brass as well.

The first Copland selection, “Letters from Home” is not a well-known work, but it is intense in emotion. It centers on thoughts during World War II of a soldier reading correspondence from home. The orchestra, full in texture, played the work with deep inner feeling. One would say a section of the work with solo trumpet played by principal Eddie Ludema with solo piano was simply beautiful. Beautiful clarinet solo work by Samantha Johnson-Helms along with wonderfully blended brass and winds brought the quiet, reminiscent, and nostalgic work to a close.

Copland’s “Appalachian Spring” is easily recognized as American in character and is rich in melody, harmony and character. Commissioned as a ballet by Martha Graham and originally titled “Ballet for Martha,” it is based on a poem by Hart Crane and is about the American Frontier which was then western Pennsylvania.

This work demands the full orchestral forces which in this performance gave us the contrasts in remarkable colors of prayer, a barn dance, a bride’s dance and finally a quote from a Shaker Hymn. Musical depiction of building and celebration on the American frontier ultimately gave us the feeling that all would be well.

After intermission, the guest pianist for the evening entered the stage to perform the Brahms Piano Concert No. 2 in B-flat major, op. 83. Pianistic circles universally say that the Brahms 2nd is the most expansive and difficult concert in the entire pianistic repertoire.

This fact did not seem to resonate with Chen because he delivered the most original and likely the best live performance I have ever experienced among the many such performances I have heard in my professional life. This young pianist plays as a very thoughtful musician well beyond his years and seems to find no technical difficulty a real challenge. It was truly a remarkable performance in every respect.

From the solo horn entry played very beautifully by Victoria Knudtson, Chen made an entry which immediately showed him at one with the orchestra and the conductor. The first movement has all the characteristic features of Brahms Symphonic style — rapid and frequent changes of mood, highly individual blending of major and minor (light and dark), and conflicts of melodic and rhythmic elements.

Chen handled rapid octaves, huge leaps, brilliant passage work with ease. Every note had musical meaning, and the result was that he, the orchestra, and the conductor were one. This is necessary for the dialogue this movement demands between piano and orchestra.

The second movement, Allegro appassionato, is a scherzo-trio. Chen was at his most original in the development of musical ideas in this movement.

At the beginning of the third movement, the cello solo reminiscent of Brahms lieder was played beautifully by principal cellist Liz Seungah Hong. As the piano entered the interweaving of singing lines was magical. The finale in sonata form but interspersed with rondo elements is a splendid succession of highly individual fascinatingly harmonized melodies. Chen brought the work to a brilliant climax.

Look in the future for this young man who played two encores to two standing ovations. He will be at the top.

Henry Upper is associate dean emeritus of Indiana University’s Jacobs School of Music. Send comments to

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