Tuesday, 15 July 2008

What I wrote about John Chen in 2004

Just reliving my previous posts on The Flying Inkpot, this was what I wrote about John Chen in 2004, and the strong gut feeling I had that he would win that edition of SIPCA. Rather rare in music competitions these days, where pugilistic and technical aspects of performance usually come first, true musicianship won the day on that chilly July afternoon.

Round IV (Chamber Music)

If it were left to me to award the chamber prize, it would surely go this year to young John Chen. In Ravel's Piano Trio in A minor, he performed sans score and was in total communication with his string companions throughout. It was a totally assured yet sensitive performance that revealed an uncommon and uncanny feel for the idiom. A teenage Malaysian-born New Zealander playing French music as if he were a Frenchman and member of a long-established piano trio? It was scary, if not something short of miraculous.

Round V (Mozart Concertos)

In Chen's hands, the congenial G major concerto (K.453) took on the shape of chamber music but on the scale of a virtuoso showpiece. Urgent and driven, he could have allowed the music more breathing space and the luxury of smelling the flowers. The latter, he did so in his own innovative cadenzas - a Beethovenian one in the 1st movement and in the 2nd movement, one that wittily incorporated a bar of Tchaikovsky (the Theme and Variations from Op.19). A case of gilding the lily I thought, but from an 18-year-old, it came as refreshing and uncontrived.

Round VI (Romantic & 20th Century Concertos)

John Chen’s Rachmaninov Third Piano Concerto started off on a quietly confident note (don’t they all?) but he began to build upon it. He matched everything Rem Urasin [who played Tchaikovsky's First Piano Concerto] had given and did not shy away from playing the larger chordal cadenza, which for all intents and purposes seems overblown compared to its sleeker and more mercurial alternative. Rachmaninov and Horowitz both preferred the latter. He however worked it up at an alarming pace, delivering spadesful in almost wild abandon – but with not a single note dropped! Never have I heard the cadenza delivered so authoritatively and with such frightening intensity.

The slow and final movements also shaped up nicely. Chen’s pianism is not one just content with merely delivering the notes, but one that encompasses all the finer details and nuances without losing the overall picture. His Ravel Piano Trio in Stage IV revealed that rare and highly prized aspect of musicianship and he was to do it again, in of all things, the Rach Third. When more could not have been expected in the hectic finale, he was able to draw upon something else – some spiritual and transcendental quality – deep from within and to go for broke. Where others steadily plod along or wander off tangent, Chen simply soars.


I had a chance to meet Chen in person at the post-competition reception. Although he was born in Kuala Lumpur (Malaysia), his family migrated to New Zealand when he was only eleven months old. Currently a student at the University of Auckland (he enrolled at the age of 14!), he studies with Rae de Lisle who has been his teacher for ten years. I also learnt that for the three days leading to the finals, he had been down with a bout of influenza!

Partly shell-shocked and elated, Chen struck me as modest and without self-consciousness. I asked him how he had coped especially with working with the chamber musicians and the orchestras, who were virtually total strangers. His simple and matter-of-fact reply was, “I have been playing chamber music since I was thirteen."

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