classique / Modern Classical / période romantique

Kevin Chen, or the challenges of an 18-year-old virtuoso

by Alain Brunet

Budapest Liszt Competition, Geneva Competition, Arthur Rubinstein Competition… Between the ages of 16 and 18, Alberta’s Kevin Chen has already won top prizes in these international competitions, not to mention honorable mentions in several others. Clearly gifted, this instrumentalist has only just passed the threshold of adulthood, and we present him to the music-loving public always eager to discover an emerging virtuoso in the context of a recital.

Too soon, we might say, after this program presented on Sunday by Pro Musica at Salle Pierre-Mercure, but…. If Kevin Chen has won these competitions, it’s certainly not for his technical skills alone. Musicality, emotion, grace – in short, all the characteristics that distinguish great musicians from the best technicians – must also be present.

And yet, on Sunday, the young man did not experience his best afternoon, that is to say, a moment of grace when all the values of great music come together. Should we conclude from this that it’s always the same on his side?

From a strictly technical point of view, the ivories are perfectly mastered, and both left and right hands do their job in this program. The articulation is very solid, the pedal play interesting, the sonority ample. The problem with this Sunday performance, in fact, is one of style, voluptuousness and even pianistic personality.

Here again, we can’t be peremptory on this question, as a musician of this age probably hasn’t yet acquired the consistency of his elders.  Nevertheless, we assume that he can sometimes be inhabited by the great spirits of music and … as was the case on Sunday, it happens that pressure, fatigue and other worries of life can block their harnessing on the performer.

Nevertheless, we assume that he can  sometimes be inhabited by the great spirits of music and … as was the case on Sunday, it happens that pressure, fatigue and other worries of life can block their harnessing on the performer.

At this early stage of a potentially remarkable career, Kevin Chen is not immune to the irritants that limit him to a clinical, albeit technically remarkable interpretation for anyone who rarely has access to such a level of execution. Although… I heard several doubts expressed, and these doubts did not come from the patented critics.

The 28th of Beethoven’s 32 piano sonatas, it has to be said,  is no mean feat to pull off early in one’s career, but one imagines he’s done it before since it was a big part of this program. Calculated risk? As for Felix Mendelssohn’s Fantaisie en fa dièse mineur, op.28, we felt he was more fluid, but not exactly on the side of magic and transcendence.  To conclude the first part, the version for solo piano of Ravel’s “La Valse”, a ternary course certainly influenced by the jazz of the 20s, starting with that of George Gershwin and the stride piano then in vogue in New York, is played with… abrupt precision. As if emotion exploded through a form of pianistic violence…

The second part was dedicated to Franz Liszt, who was himself a piano virtuoso and part of the obligatory career path of every aspiring concert pianist. He played three sonnets from the Années de pèlerinage, taken from the 2nde year of the cycle, nos. 47, 104 and 123.  And concluded with Réminiscences de Norma, S.394, also by Liszt. At the encore, he will play Liederkreis, Op. 39: XII. Frühlingsnacht, by Robert Schumann, arranged by Liszt.

In short, we’ve seen Kevin Chen’s immense talent, but we haven’t yet seen the immense musician he could become. High virtuosity in classical music is more and more remarkable in this world, and never before have so many musicians reached such a level, but… life must take its toll, and the challenge for the best like Kevin Chen lies in the quest for style and personality. Let’s bet he’ll be different and better by his next recital, of course, if he’s aware of these issues and those around him grasp them too.

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