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The poet behind the musician: Piano prodigy Kevin Chen’s homecoming

By Sweta Babladi, October 13 2023—

Calgarian pianist and composer Kevin Chen has taken the world of classical music by storm. He has won, among others, the “triple crown” of international piano competitions: The Liszt International Piano Competition in 2021, the Geneva International Piano Competition in 2022 and the Arthur Rubinstein Piano Master Competition in 2023. He is celebrated by peers, adjudicators and educators alike for his sophistication, profundity and ability to bring new meaning to repertoire that is centuries-old. 

On Sept. 27, he returned to his hometown of Calgary for a dazzling performance in the Rosza Centre at the University of Calgary. The recital was both a heartfelt welcome and a farewell, as Chen looks forward to his debut at Carnegie Hall in New York City.

Prior to the riveting performance, the audience had the chance to hear Chen’s piano teacher, Professor Marilyn Engle, and recently retired artistic director of the Alberta Ballet, Jean Grande-Maitre, speak about the prodigy’s early life in music and his triumph on the international stage. There was no shortage of praise for Chen, who had started learning the piano at the age of five and has even performed some of his own compositions. 

When asked about what the audience should be listening for during the performance, Engle replied, “The human being.” 

The necessity of mastering the fundamentals of an instrument is something every musician knows well: scales, tone development, posture, theoretical understanding of musical notation and developing a keen ear. Ultimately, however, what brings the notes on a page to life is the performer’s ability to be a storyteller.

True to Engle’s words, Chen’s performance was not only a show of technical mastery on the piano, but a statement about the human being – the poet –  behind the musician; every phrase, every note, even the silence that is part of the music, was intentional and chosen to convey a story about humanity’s desire to give significance to everything we experience. Mendelssohn, Chopin and Liszt, who all had widely celebrated and timeless compositions on tonight’s program, were carried through the centuries from the time of their compositions and were placed in a modern setting through the pianist’s personal touch, which is undeniably irreplicable.

At one moment, Chen’s playing commanded attention with great walls of sound and technical expertise that left the audience at the edge of their seats. The next, he would force nostalgia, vulnerability and grief to the surface, with tender melodies that became all the more touching with his attention to detail. The repertoire on the program was beautifully balanced, including Mendelssohn’s playful and invigorating Prelude and Fugue in B-flat major, all the way to the enchanting landscape of Liszt’s Les jeux d’eaux a la Villa d’Este No. 4.

This inspiring recital truly paid homage to Engle’s comment on the human behind the music in a way that only a musician who has fully immersed himself in the art of performance can. The concert was a touching display of virtuosity and musical excellence. Within two hours, Chen brought the full range of human emotions – joy, playfulness, loss, awe, anger, curiosity and all-consuming love – to our small corner of the world on the Rosza Centre Stage.

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