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Review: Sean Chen gives powerful performance with Fort Worth Symphony

Posted 8:19pm on Sunday, Aug. 25, 2013

He seemed to remember the piece just fine.

Pianist Sean Chen, the Crystal Award (third-place) winner in the 14th Van Cliburn International Piano Competition, returned to Bass Hall on Sunday to close the Fort Worth Symphony’s three-concert Russian Festival with a performance of Rachmaninoff’s Piano Concerto No. 3, the same concerto he performed in the Cliburn finals 11 weeks ago.

Maybe it was that previous experience, but the 24-year-old pianist, who grew up in California and lives in New Haven, Conn., where he is studying at Yale, certainly seemed at ease and in charge as he hung onto the knuckle-busting concerto like a veteran bronc rider who refuses to be thrown.

One of the things that separates Chen from other fellow virtuosos is his unadorned technique and matter-of-fact stage presence. He may have seemed so supremely in control Sunday because he largely eschews the showiness we often see with Cliburn competitors trying to make an impression.

Chen was smooth and confident from the concerto’s opening to its close. His abundant talent shone through, especially, in the work’s first-movement cadenza (solo), in which his playing made the statement that he understood this massive concerto and that he intended to own it.

As he moved through the concerto’s three movements, he met every challenge Rachmaninoff could throw at him and still had plenty of energy left to do justice to the piece’s keyboard-pounding finale. Chen was so dominant that the orchestra was almost was reduced to the role of bystander. But music director Miguel Harth-Bedoya and company certainly gave Chen the support he needed.

Chen followed his concerto with one of the most interesting encores Bass Hall has ever seen. After acknowledging an extended round of applause from the audience of about 1,500, Chen turned to two violinists and two cellists in the symphony and asked each of them to play a note of their choice. He then returned to his piano bench and did about three minutes of improvisation on those four notes.

It was an incredibly cool thing to do. The problem was that most in attendance had no idea what he was doing (an insider had to explain to me afterward). The few words of explanation he offered before playing did not reach much of the hall. For most, his encore was just a very odd piece they had not heard before. So, the concept was great, but the presentation could have used some improvement.

The concert closed with Tchaikovsky’s Symphony No. 6, the composer’s final work in that form and one of his last compositions of any kind.

Harth-Bedoya’s interpretation of the four-movement work was painfully slow in the first movement. But things picked up considerably in the second and, aside from a few little problems (the horns came through as inexplicably buzzy late in the work, for example), it was a satisfying performance that featured some especially nice contributions from bassoonist Kevin Hall and clarinetist Ana Victoria Luperi.

It also made for an appropriate close to the event, which was dedicated to the memory of the legendary pianist Van Cliburn, a famous lover of Russia.

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