When pianist Sean Chen was getting ready to graduate from high school near Los Angeles, he had college acceptance letters from Harvard, MIT and Juilliard.
“If I had gone to Harvard or MIT, I’m sure I would have gone into the sciences,” Chen said. “I was interested in anything math, physics or chemistry, really, or I many have discovered something else. When I chose Juilliard to do music, my reasoning was that if after two years I hated it, I think it would have been much easier to transfer out of it to study physics than the other way around.”
Chen, the 2013 Cliburn Crystal Award-winning pianist, will perform at 7:30 p.m. Feb. 18 with the Wichita Falls Symphony Orchestra at Memorial Auditorium. The orchestra will be conducted by Fouad Fakhouri, the third finalist for the position of WFSO conductor.
Chen said he was born into a family that liked music, but no one in his family was a professional musician.
“My dad listened to a lot of ’70s rock and pop, and there was always music playing in our house.”
He began piano lessons at age 5 after his parents noticed him enjoying playing a little electronic keyboard.
“So I started lessons. When you’re a kid, you start taking lessons and then you slowly start getting into (classical) music and finding the different composers you like.”
At Juilliard, Chen also took nonmusical courses at Columbia University, such as the complete calculus series, financial economics and econometrics.
“I enjoyed computer programming, and there was a point in time when my teachers recommended me to apply for an internship doing computer graphics.”
Chen almost took the internship because it’s easy to have fears about making a career in music. But he decided against it after a series of musical opportunities arose for him.
“I am glad I stuck with it,” he said.
The pianist completed his bachelor’s and master’s degrees in music from Juilliard. In 2013, he placed third in the 14th Van Cliburn International Piano Competition. So rather than go for a doctorate in music and become a teacher, he completed his artist diploma at the Yale School of Music in 2014 to focus on performance.
Doing well at such a major competition provided the pianist with support and management.
“There are plenty of brilliant pianists out there,” he said. “The trick is getting support. Without that, I would not be performing as much as I do now.”
The 28-year-old Chen has played all over America, as well as a handful of concerts in Europe and China.
Chen will perform Sergei Rachmaninoff’s Piano Concerto No. 2, Op. 18, in C minor with the orchestra. After an intermission, the orchestra will perform Antonin Dvorak’s Symphony No. 9, Op. 95 in E minor.
“The Rachmaninoff Piano Concerto is just one of those pieces you know,” he said. “It’s like Grieg and Tchaikovsky and a couple of Beethoven and Mozart concertos. Rachmaninoff’s Piano Concerto has some of the best-known melodies of any classical piece.”
Pop singer Eric Carmen famously borrowed from the piece’s second movement in his hit single, “All by Myself.”
“When Rachmaninoff wrote the concerto, he was coming out of this very depressive state of his life. This concerto is sort of his recovery piece he wrote to get back on track. It’s very dramatic. There are some very fun-to-play passages, and people really like it.”
Chen is frequently praised for his ability to communicate music to audiences. Part of that, he explained, is having a very good concept of the music in his head and then knowing what he wants to communicate. “It’s not a matter of playing the music because it’s been played this way for a long time.
His ongoing interest in math and science actually helps him communicate what he hears to the audience
“Just because you feel something when you’re on stage doesn’t mean the audience is going to feel it. You have to, in a way, dissect and pinpoint the essence of the expression.
“What makes it feel sad or lyrical or agitated or excited? You have to distill those into executable parameters or else you’ll end up spending a lot more time feeling things than actually have them come out.”
What: Pianist Sean Chen with the Wichita Falls Symphony Orchestra
When: 7:30 p.m. Feb. 18
Where: Memorial Auditorium, 1300 Seventh St.
Admission: $10 to $35
Information: wfso.org or 940-723-6202