Last January I heard part of quite a thrilling chamber concert at SubCulture. The Mirò Quartet excelled themselves in an all-Brahms concert with a young Taiwanese-American pianist I had not heard before, Weiyin Chen. Her playing showed maturity, a deep identification with the music, in this case Brahms’ Piano Quartet in C Minor and Piano Quintet, an extensive range of color and feeling, strength, and seriousness. The Mirò played with a electric intensity I’ve not heard from them before. This was in fact the second concert of a three-part debut series she has organized for SubCulture. Her first concert was with another outstanding chamber group, the Camerata RCO, all members of the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra. Their program, consisting of Mozart’s Piano Concerto in A Major, K. 414, and Mendelssohn’s early Double Concerto for Violin, Piano, and Strings, was just issued as a CD on June 6, 2015 on the Camerata’s own label, Gutman Records. The third, a solo recital, will take place next week, June 13, at 7:30, when Ms. Chen will play the Bartók Sonata, Schubert’s Piano Sonata in G Major, Op. 78, D. 794, and the World Premiere of Marc Neikrug’s “Sun Moon Lake.” She will play these without intermission in order to give the audience a vital impression of the different sound worlds of the pieces. This is not to be missed, and SubCulture is an intimate venue, so get your tickets now. For more information and to buy tickets click here.
I had the pleasure of chatting with Weiyin Chen by telephone the other day. What I learned about her background and present thinking only reaffirmed the strong impression she made on me at SubCulture. I have no doubt that Weiyin Chen will soon be an important figure in the worlds of the piano and music in general—and a very welcome one as well. Her seriousness and dedication to music is sorely needed today and can only have a healthy influence on audiences and young musicians.
Weiyin first left her native Taiwan as a child, when her mother, a surgeon like her father, came to Philadelphia as a fellow at the University of Pennsylvania Hospital. Her talent showed itself early. She returned to the United States at the age of 13, this time to New York, where she attended Juilliard Pre-College and later College, where she studied with Oxana Yablonskaya, Joseph Kalichstein and Herbert Stessin. Her most important influences came later, beginning with Leon Fleisher, with whom she studied for five years. She first played for him in a nationally televised masterclass in Taiwan, when she was a young teen, upon the invitation of violinist Cho-Liang Lin, music director for the Taipei International Music Festival. It took her some time to screw up her courage to approach Fleisher as a prospective student, but it turned out that he remembered her and was surprisingly open when she asked to study with him. If I remember correctly, Fleisher himself told the story from his own point of view at one of his lectures this winter at the 92nd Street Y. His high opinion of Chen’s playing was clear. What’s more, he came to Taiwan during his 85th birthday world tour to conduct Weiyin’s debut as soloist with the National Taiwan Symphony Orchestra in Brahms’ First Piano Concerto. After this, she studied privately with Richard Goode and the late Claude Frank. She spoke with an appropriate measure of veneration and affectionate warmth of all three of these mentors. I don’t believe I’m making it up when I say that I can hear the Schnabel pedigree (through Fleisher) in her playing, as well as a solidity and power reminiscent of Frank as well as a finely nuanced phrasing which brings all of these masters together. On the other hand, her playing is striking in its maturity, and she projects first and foremost her own personality, which combines a singing line with rootedness and energy, as well as a great variety of color, dynamics, and phrasing. She is not afraid to shift tempos to make a particular section stand out. Her playing is so expressive and absorbing that it carries us back to the greats of Schnabel’s generation. Ms. Chen emphasized in our conversation that she feels that contemporary musicians should concentrate more on serving the composers than their careers, or whatever other narrow considerations that may distract them from their duty as musicians to serve the scores they play. This high-minded belief makes itself heard in the integrity of her performances.
Ms. Chen and the Camerata RCO have been touring extensively internationally with their Mozart/Mendelssohn program, and she expressed special enthusiasm for the group. They have come to feel so comfortable with one another, that they play the works quite differently each time they perform them. The recording, clearly made in long takes, as it should be, captures this feeling of spontaneity and camaraderie.
Chen is equally passionate about the piano itself. It is almost inevitable in this country that the difference between New York and Hamburg Steinways will arise in conversation. The question is perhaps more interesting for what it might lead to rather than its intrinsic appeal. We were discussing the making of her new recording with the Camerata RCO, its outstanding sound, both acoustically and technically, and the instrument she played, which sounded like a Hamburg Steinway—which in fact it is, the recording having been made in a radio studio in the Netherlands. After a moment’s hesitation Chen stressed that pianos should be considered as individual instruments. Each has its own unique quality. In her debut recording, called “Diary in G,” in which she paired Schubert’s great G Major Sonata with Schumann’s G Minor, (Azica Records ACD-71278) she played a venerable Hamburg Steinway which once belonged to Gina Bachauer (1913-76) and is in fact known by her name. The recording was made in the superb hall at the American Academy of Arts and Letters to very high standards and bears out Chen’s view that it is a unique instrument. As she plays the “Bachauer,” it combines clarity, distinction of register, and power. The rich chords in the first movement of the Schubert, for example, are wonderfully differentiated across their range. On a more metaphysical level, Chen believes that pianos are alive, since they are made of wood, and trees are a living part of our living environment. Without going into the complex interplay of human relations to the flesh of trees through art, craft, and the exigencies of manufacture, this insight gave a view into the depth and scope of Weiyin Chen’s view of life and music. (I can give this recording my highest recommendation. Bringing together what is nowadays a fairly familiar masterpiece of Schubert’s with a lesser-known work of Schumann’s, it provides an impressive view of the meditative, lyrical, and virtuosic aspects of Chen’s musicianship. Her reading of the Schubert is an ideal balance of its fantasia-like freedom and sonata structure. When the music calls for brilliance, clarity, and a steady pulse, she observes them, and when it is time for rubato and atmosphere, she produces that as well, with affecting eloquence and a sure sense of shape and timing.)
Weiyin Chen’s relationship to the piano goes beyond that, however. She grew up with a Fazioli piano. Weiyin expressed particular affection for this instrument, which has inspired her for some years now, and anyone who has heard these remarkable intruments will understand what she means. Last summer she visited the Fazioli factory in Sacile, in Friuli, and felt honored to meet Paolo Fazioli himself and to discuss the design and character of the instruments with him. She is looking forward to playing one of his instruments in the specially-designed recital hall at the Fazioli works.
Weiyin Chen’s philosophy of life and her history as the daughter of physicians have made her especially aware of the healing powers of music. She and her father, Dr. Hung-Chi Chen, have collaborated with the Mehli Mehta Music Foundation in conducting a mission in Mumbai in March of this year. In this Ms. Chen coached local young artists and performed a benefit recital. All proceeds went into her father’s charitable work which funded 42 operations in 3 days, carried out by an international team of surgeons to help underprivileged Indian children and adults.
Weiyin Chen’s two recordings and the Brahms Piano Quintet—all I have heard so far—were fully-realized performances of the highest technical quality, sensitive insight, and unusual maturity. Hers is a debut of special importance and promises much to look forward to over the years.