Saturday, November 20, 2021

Sean Chen brings his insightful gifts to Palladium recital

Sean Chen showed nuance and insight.

 Many listeners to classical music, not all of them unsophisticated, find themselves conjuring visual images not only as accompaniment to what they hear, but also as ways to invest what might otherwise remain abstract with concrete meaning.

When a composer explicitly writes two sets of pieces called "Images" (which works equally well as French or English), the permission to think visually seems foreordained, even required. Of course, the drawback is that there's no way of controlling that. 

And what Debussy said about "Images," which Sean Chen played Friday night in recital at the Palladium, indicates some freedom in allowing his special language of harmonies and phrases to go beyond the image suggested by each title. Why does "Reflets dans l'eau" (Reflections on the water) ever get tumultuous, for instance? Debussy must have felt impelled to go with his musical ideas and to some extent leave the reflectiveness behind for a while.

I think I was hearing what he had in mind in "Et la lune descends sur le temple qui fut" (And the moon goes down over the temple of old), though that very title brings up abstract notions of decayed architecture and an expansive sense of endings that invite the listener to drift elsewhere. It may have been a distraction that my most striking moon image, conveyed 13 hours earlier, was that of the lunar eclipse I saw near its end Friday morning, with a curved "bite" out of the full moon visible over Indianapolis shortly before the cloud cover moved in. "That's us!" I thought of Earth's shadow, in the inevitable way we have of placing ourselves at the center of the cosmos. Maybe human vanity is the "old temple" over which the moon regularly goes down.

With such a historic sight receding in my memory, I felt more in sync with the formality and detail of "Hommage a Rameau," a tribute to the composer's illustrious 18th-century predecessor, and to the etude-like focus of "Mouvement." It was almost a nuisance that the buzzing energy of the writing, over which a brief, insistent melody announces itself, got me wondering if Igor Stravinsky had this piece in mind when he wrote the "Shrovetide Fair" episode for the ballet "Petrushka."

Chen's performance paid scrupulous attention to color and texture throughout the six pieces. Everything served the concept, whether symbolic or literal, behind them all. Articulation of each fragmentary voice in "Et la lune..." was well balanced, and the Asian scale implications near the end were decisive. 

My guess is that for most listeners, "Poissons d'or" (Goldfish), makes a literal interpretation for listeners comfortable; a dashing sequence of darting or flashing movement parades before the listener. The movement celebrated abstractly in "Mouvement" is here given a seemingly improvisatory realization, drawn from the natural world. One of the fascinating things about other animals is how differently from human beings they characteristically move about; fish are perhaps the most different, even insects analogize human movement in our imaginations. This is the watery mystery that Debussy gave original form to and that Chen re-created Friday night at the Palladium. 

The recitalist, 2013 winner of the American Pianists Awards, is also a composer. A piece he wrote on commission from the sponsoring American Pianists Association to honor CEO/artistic director Joel Harrison upon his retirement last summer opened the second half of the program. "Daydream No. 1 - Steps" benefits from Chen's thorough knowledge of the keyboard and his performing facility. But the style seems too patly an outgrowth of the landmark Debussy innovations just sampled before intermission. The material has a New Age patina, in that melody is in the foreground, fashioned after the mellow, easy-listening manner associated with Windham Hill records.

The recital opened with a fully romantic way of depicting something from life — this time fashioned through a saint's legend, Liszt's "St. Francois de Paule marchant sure les flots" (from "2 Legendes").  Water imagery is also a generating force, as it often was with the French impressionists. Waves and the sheer volume of a strait in the Mediterranean are substantially represented to set up the miracle of St. Francis de Paul walking on water to his destination after a ferryman refused to transport him when he couldn't pay the fare. As fired by his subject as Liszt could be, his procedure typically made the piano the true subject of the stories that got his creative juices flowing. 

Chen responded to the forcefulness of the music: sweeping waves of sound and, in left-hand tremolos, the ominous suggestions of peril. The balances were firm, and the deliverance of the saint through his Christ-imitating miracle of water-walking was effectively celebrated as the tremolos moved to the right hand and a hymn of praise poured forth.

The crowning work of Chen's appearance was his insightful interpretation of Schumann's Fantasy in C major, op. 17. The mercurial nature of Schumann's temperament, especially in long works, holds no terrors for him. It may not be reading too much into the composer's mind to understand that his charm often derives from indecisiveness, not being very sure which way he should go. I think especially the first movement shows the composer's ambivalence and a willingness to commit only in bursts. Chen takes these changes of direction seriously; there was considerable honoring of the music's pauses and dynamic shifts.

I put on Facebook early Friday an admission of my goosebump reaction to a passage of heightened feeling in the last movement. The trouble with experiencing a good kind of chill when listening to music is that it can make the listener take for granted the music that surrounds the goosebump moment and makes it work. In the slow movement that ends the Schumann Fantasy, the connectedness of everything is exemplary, and Chen's performance displayed that unity. 

The tension was built conscientiously, and the way the music slows as it calms down from the zenith that always excites me was well-defined by the pianist. His acceleration on the last page was bold, headlong and thoroughly in keeping with the genius of this troubled, but often quite effective, composer.  Perhaps the Fantasy's quiet ending militated against audience demand for an encore, but Chen had already been generous with exhibiting his prowess. What we heard was sufficient in both amount and ability.

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