After finishing public high school in Southern California, Sean Chen faced a momentous decision. He had been accepted to Harvard and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, but the famous Juilliard School had also called. There was a spot for him in its New York City piano studio.
His mother, Teri, favored Harvard. Her son had shown remarkable facility at the keyboard, but the piano had been his hobby. He also loved computers and video games, playing tennis and basketball, hanging out with twin brothers who were four years younger.
“He had always been a normal high school kid, had never been in the conservatory,” Teri Chen remembered last week. “I just felt that he was lacking a lot of background or foundation [for Juilliard]. But he convinced me, really convinced me. He said, ‘I’ve been doing high school and the piano. I want to do one thing. I want to do the piano. If it’s not working, I can always go back to school.’”
It seems to be working just fine.
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Sean Chen, now 24, has earned two Juilliard degrees and a growing reputation as one of his generation’s finest young soloists.
And today he will perform Rachmaninoff’s Piano Concerto No. 3, the concluding notes of the 14th Van Cliburn International Piano Competition.
Chen, one of six competitors to survive from the original 30, is the first American in the Cliburn finals since another Californian, Jon Nakamatsu, captured gold in 1997.
Teri Chen now endures good-natured ribbing about her college preference.
“You have to follow your passion,” said the mother, who came from California to watch her son perform in the Cliburn finals. “I’m so happy to see that he enjoys his music; he’s so committed and he’s having fun. That’s the best for him. Once you have that love and passion, I just have to trust that as a parent.”
Perhaps more than any other competitor in this year’s field, Chen has brought star power to the stage, a handsome young musician with a thick mop of black hair who is not above theatrics at the keyboard. But his charm derives mostly from his demeanor, on and off stage. He seems utterly imperturbable, “chill,” in the vernacular of his home state.
He arrived in Fort Worth with a severe case of food poisoning and was too sick to practice for days. Then he climbed off his sickbed, ate some solid food, practiced a bit and delivered a fine opening-round recital like it was no big deal. On Friday night, in his first concerto of the finals, with all the pressure of the Cliburn and the piano world watching, Chen often smiled up at conductor Leonard Slatkin during their performance of Beethoven.
“I had a lot of fun,” he said afterward.
He’s been told that his playing sounds “Californian.”
“I have no idea what that means,” he said, laughing.
His background, Chen said, “is complicated, politically.”
His grandparents fled to Taiwan from China during the Cultural Revolution. Chen’s parents came to the United States as graduate students. Chen was born in Florida but moved to Southern California when he was 4.
His parents aren’t professional musicians, but they encouraged all three of their sons to study both piano and violin and participate in youth orchestra.
It became apparent early on that the oldest son had a special gift. At age 8, he was taken to the private studio of Edward Francis, a respected Southern California teacher who also instructs college pianists at two area universities. Francis found that the youngster had perfect pitch and a lot more.
The year Chen went to Francis, a regional orchestra planned to perform for Southern California fourth-graders and was looking for a soloist about the same age. Francis suggested someone even younger. Chen was in the third grade at the time.
“They assigned him Beethoven’s Second Concerto, and he learned it in a few weeks,” Francis said. “So he played with a professional symphony, the last movement of Beethoven Two. It was rather remarkable, very, very good. A few years later, he played a Liszt etude at a piano festival. I listened to that and I thought, ‘This is an unusual and exceptional talent.’”
But even then his parents had questions about his path.
When Chen was in junior high, his father, Eric, approached the teacher.
“He was concerned that the life of a concert pianist was difficult and challenging,” Francis said.
“He didn’t know whether he should continue to encourage it. I said, ‘Eric, he already plays as well or better than my college students. You really need to encourage this. You’re not forcing him to do anything. He’s the one who’s gobbling up all this repertoire and so eager to go to lessons. We’re going to nurture this.’”
Then, after high school, came the decision. Chen was asked how hard his mother tried to persuade him to go to Harvard.
“Obviously not hard enough,” he said, laughing.
In fairness, the choice was not immediately clear to him, either.
“It was like a hobby and it got to be a serious hobby later on in high school,” Chen said. “I wasn’t 100 percent sure I wanted to do music until I said ‘yes’ to Juilliard.
“Part of my decision-making process was: ‘Can I go a day without doing something with science or math?’ Probably, yeah. ‘Can I go a day without touching a piano and thinking about music?’ I would probably feel really uncomfortable. I just like the sound of it, the feeling of it.”
So it was off to New York.
“I knew I was good enough to get into Juilliard, but how did I stack up to other people?” Chen said.
“I knew I had work to do. I didn’t practice six hours a day like the others. My max was three hours a day in high school, if that. I really cracked down when I got to Juilliard.’”
The result has been a performing career that has begun to flower. He has taken top prizes in other competitions and this year won the American Piano Association’s Classical Fellowship, a prestigious and lucrative prize.
At the Cliburn, he has survived food poisoning and the performance of four hours of classical music under the most trying circumstances imaginable, smiling onstage.
That’s California chill. Chen also concedes that he might be a little crazy.
“Only a crazy person like me rejects Harvard,” he said.