Ogninana & Michael Masser Family Foundation and Waring International Piano Competition present Yi-Yang Chen in Review
Yi-Yang Chen, piano
Weill Hall at Carnegie Hall, New York, NY
October 18, 2017
The winner of the 2017 Virginia Waring International Piano Competition (www.vwipc.org) , twenty-seven-year old Yi-Yang Chen , was presented by the Ogninana & Michael Masser Family Foundation and the VWIPC in a recital at Weill Hall on October 18, 2017. The intermission-free program included works by Beethoven, Debussy, De Falla, Rachmaninoff, and a piece composed by Mr. Chen.
Yi-Yang Chen is currently the assistant professor of piano and music theory at East Tennessee State University. In addition to winning the VWIPC, Mr. Chen’s biography lists many other victories and prizes in a number of equally impressive competitions.
Before anything else, I must revisit one of my pet peeves, the omission of program notes. There seems to be a trend in omitting any program notes. I am not sure if this is a cost issue (saving money on printing fewer pages) or the thought that they are unnecessary and therefore there is no reason to write them. While in some instances this might be the case (as often performers are playing works that are so well-known that the average listener would be familiar with them), this trend is nonetheless disturbing to this reviewer. Even brief notes would enhance the listening experience. I will return to this issue later.
Mr. Chen opened with Beethoven’s Bagatelles, Op. 126. A bagatelle, by conventional definition is a trifle, a thing of little importance. In music, it may be assumed to be a work in a light style, but Beethoven’s Op. 126, among his later works, are no trifles. Intended to be played as a set, these six miniatures contain some of the most revelatory and profound music to be found in such crystalized form. Mr. Chen projected a keen awareness of this truth, but perhaps occasionally his very admiration of the pieces became an impediment, his approach sometimes growing a bit fussy or persnickety. The notes were all there – and Mr. Chen was unfailingly accurate – but the word “overthinking” came to mind. While there may be a discrepancy between the lightness of the term “Bagatelle” and the weighty nature of Beethoven’s distilled musical feeling in his late years, it may be best to let the pieces unfold more freely and spontaneously, letting the listener discover the depths.
The Debussy works that followed, Étude 11 pour les arpèges composés and La Puerta Vino from the Préludes, Book II, were epiphanies. They glimmered with a wondrous radiance in a way that was completely natural. Mr. Chen seems to have an innate understanding for this music. It was some of the finest playing of Debussy this reviewer can recall hearing, either in concert or recordings, and the highlight of the evening for me.
Next was De Falla’s Fantasia Baetica. Written in 1919, it was commissioned by and dedicated to Arthur Rubinstein. It seemed appropriate that Mr. Chen should excel at playing De Falla, considering Debussy’s influence on De Falla, and Mr. Chen’s affinity for the former. He negotiated this difficult work with what appeared to be the greatest of ease. The passagework was sparkling, and the energy never flagging. Mr. Chen held the line and momentum throughout, challenges which many players struggle with in this work. It was an excellent performance.
Mr. Chen followed with his composition In Memoriam: Japan, March 11, 2011. The date refers to the cataclysmic earthquake and tsunami that struck Japan. There is obviously deep meaning in this event for Mr. Chen (as for the rest of the world), but it would have been both helpful and appropriate for some notes of explanation to be included. The titles of the two movements ( I. Twisting Path, II. Oblivion) were inexplicably missing from the program, but were included in some promotional materials. It opens with sledgehammer blows on the lowest A, which one would assume is the earthquake itself, some use of plucking strings inside the piano to create sounds similar to the koto, and other atmospheric effects using the inside of the instrument. There were moments in the second movement that were reminiscent of Janáček’s Sonata 1.X. 1905, “From the Street.” Unfortunately, if one strips away such random hints, there is little to inform the experience. The work is obviously programmatic, but one wanted further insights, lest one’s assumptions do a possible disservice to the composer and the performer.
Ending with Rachmaninoff’s bravura Sonata No. 2 in B-flat minor, Op. 36 (in the revised 1931 version), Mr. Chen’s was a powerhouse performance. This was not the cookie-cutter reading that one often hears from competition contestants. His bold, take-no-holds approach was all that one hopes for in this work. It is a high-risk proposition that demands a large technique, and Mr. Chen delivered. I’ve heard many performances of this sonata, and Mr. Chen’s ranks among the best. The audience rewarded Mr. Chen with a well-served standing ovation.
Yi-Yang Chen has the promise of enjoying a very successful career. I look forward to hearing him again in the future.