Review: APA's Sean Chen dazzles audience 

****1/2
click to enlarge Pianist Sean Chen
  • Pianist Sean Chen

Sunday afternoon at the IHC's Basile Theater may go down in the record books as hosting the APA Fellow for the 2013 Classical Fellowship Awards next April. Sean Chen, as the four other finalists in the APA's Premiere Series have or will have done, gave a solo recital, followed by playing a piano concerto with Kirk Trevor and the Indianapolis Chamber Orchestra. Chen's keyboard work was, to say the least, special.

Opening with Bach's French Suite No. 5 in G, BWV 816, Chen continued with Three Etudes, Op. 18 of Béla Bartók and finished with his own piano arrangement of Ravel's orchestral tour-de-force, La Valse. At first I was somewhat dismayed with Chen's overpedaling the first three dances of the Bach ("Allemande," "Courante," "Sarabande"), negating the more nearly staccato effect of playing the suite on a harpsichord, for which Bach wrote it. But amazingly, from the "Gavotte" onward -- for the balance of the afternoon -- Chen's "damper" pedal foot (the right one) became less "pressing," giving us well articulated notes, regardless of his speed.

The Bartók Etudes are studies ("etudes" translated) in the most difficult of piano playing in his modernist idiom. Chen sailed through them as if they were child's play. But he reserved the most astonishing part of his recital for his own La Valse. Summoning every device the modern grand's 88 keys can expend, Chen delivered as near an orchestral version of the 15 minute piece as is possible to conceive.

All sorts of flourishes, arpeggios, passage runs and chords backdropped the incessant waltz rhythm from a soft, slow start to a frenetic display scattered throughout, mimicking winds, brass, and even percussion. I heard no slips whatever throughout this extravaganza. Of course Chen got a standing ovation.

Following intermission, Trevor, as usual, led his forces in an overture, this time the profoundly bewitching one to Gluck's opera Iphigenia in Aulis (1774). This one needs to be played more often, whether using Mozart's or Wagner's concert ending (the overture bridges directly into the opera).

Top tier music concluded with Chen joining the ICO for Beethoven's Piano Concerto No. 4 in G, Op. 58. Though genial on the surface, this is the composer's supreme expression in the concerto genre, ranking among Mozart's greatest. Chen's keyboard sparkled with Beethoven's lyrico-dramatic tensions and resolutions--in perfect balance with Trevor's orchestra.

Though Chen articulated the concerto as cleanly and clearly as I've heard it, he failed me by choosing different cadenzas in the first and third movements from what Beethoven wrote, and which otherwise are universally played. Other than showing off technical display, there's no excuse for using anyone's but Beethoven's, which are perfect foils for his previous material. Chen loses a half star on that decision. Nov. 11; Indiana History Center

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