Award-winning pianist, Sean Chen and Music Toronto’s Composer Adviser, Jeffrey Ryan

Sean Chen, a rising star in the piano world, made his Toronto debut last night in the Chamber Music Downtown concert series by Music Toronto. The audience at the St. Lawrence Centre for the Arts came away thrilled by his virtuosity and the daring programme he put together.


Chen has been on a whirlwind of performances in virtually every town and city in the USA since winning the third prize at the 2013 Van Cliburn International Piano Competition and the American Pianist Award in the same year. His Toronto performance included some of his trademark transcriptions of orchestral works as well as music of the twentieth century Hungarian composer György Ligeti.

The music of Ligeti is, I would dare say, known more within the academic walls of music faculties than on the major concert stages. Thus it was surprising that from Chen’s vast repertoire of piano masterpieces, he chose Ligeti’s Musica Ricercata and Étude No. 13: L’escalier du diable for the first half of his programme. Was he just trying to be different, or did he have musical insights that would make this music come to life?

With the insightful introduction to Ligeti’s music by Music Toronto’s Composer Adviser, Jeffrey Ryan, the music became instantly accessible and dramatic. Chen took the almost impossible scores and turned them into an engaging musical experience. The first movement of the Musica Ricercata used just one note, ‘A’ and all of its octave companions to create a frenzy of rhythmic energy and dynamic contrasts before finishing on a solitary ‘D’. The Cantabile, molto legato seventh movement was a melancholic melody using just eight different notes over a repeated figure of perpetual motion in a different tempo in the left hand. As difficult as it must have been to master, it was stunningly beautiful. In the hands of a pianist such as Sean Chen, the music of Ligeti deserves to be heard more often.

The second half of the concert was as unusual as the first for frequenters of piano recitals. Chen displayed his skills as an orchestral transcriber of the music of Mozart and Rachmaninoff before finishing with a Liszt transcription.

The Mozart consisted of the “Madamina, il catalogo ѐ questo” from Don Giovanni K. 527 and the "Offertorium: Domine Jesu and Hostias” from the Requiem in D minor K. 626. Chen found ways to bring the voice and orchestra to life in his transcriptions. He brought out the wonderful counterpoint in what is usually heard from solo singers. I was particularly moved by the heavenly transition from the Domine Jesu to the Hostias.

The Adagio from Symphony No. 2 in E minor, Op. 27 was as colourful and texturally complete as one could imagine. One could feel the symphony orchestra and all its richness in the piano transcription.

Finally, the Liszt transcription of the third and fourth movements of Beethoven’s Symphony No. 5 in C Minor, Op. 67 gave Chen a chance to display all the artistry and virtuosity that has won for him, his recent awards and accolades. The flying left hand octaves were a blur to the eyes and electric to the ear. He performed the work with dazzling passion and energy.

Sean Chen, at age 28, is clearly on the cusp of international stardom. His piano virtuosity and musical imagination enthralled last night’s audience. From his insights into the avant-garde Ligeti as well as the orchestral masterpieces, one couldn’t help but wonder if there might be a great composer and/or conductor lurking within him. From Toronto, he will be travelling to Chicago and then California to perform concertos by Rachmaninoff and Beethoven.

Music Toronto will next present the St. Lawrence String Quartet on January 26th at 8pm at the St. Lawrence Centre for the Arts. Music Toronto is to be commended for bringing to the city such superb talent in its Chamber Music Downtown series.

Sean Chen, pianist

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Pianist SEAN CHEN comes up big in his Toronto debut!

Review by David Richards
Toronto ON January 11th 2017