It was an unseasonably cold late May morning in Chicago the day that Taiwanese-American Weiyin Chen performed works by Brahms and Schubert at the Dame Myra Hess Concert Series in Preston Bradley Hall of the Chicago Cultural Center. For a seasoned runner like Weiyin that meant a shorter early morning sprint by Lake Michigan perhaps, but cold was certainly no reason to totally cancel her run.
When home in New York City Weiyin starts every day—snowy ones too- with a 6-mile run around the many scenic splendors of Central Park. It was during these runs and deep inhales of the natural wonders around her that Weiyin channeled the spiritual center of Schubert’s “Piano Sonata No. 18 in G. Minor” that she performed, along with Brahms “Selection from Klavierstücke, Op. 118” for the Dame Myra Hess audience in the hall and those listening on WFMT.
Weiyin recounts, “Schubert was a nature inspired composer. I would run through the score every morning as I ran in Central Park, trying to relate the music to the nature surrounding me. I need a meditative state to explore and discover the essence of his music….(It) transforms every time I play it. I want to share this with the audience and invite them on a spiritual journey…It’s one of the most profound pieces of music that I’ve very laid my hands on.”
Actually, this sense that we were invited into her deeply personal and inspired exploration of the music she performed started with the opening notes of the Brahms selection. This was a superbly intimate performance that was least about hitting the keys and most about sharing a glimpse, courtesy of Weiyin’s performance, into what we could well imagine was the composers’ souls.
Weiyin comments, “Schubert is always a challenge for a performer because it is not enough to just play the notes themselves. You have to grasp what is beyond the notes on the page and discover the essence of the music itself, which is difficult to do in performance. You have to touch people’s hearts in the purest way without adding too much to it..”
It’s difficult to imagine how a performer could do more than Weiyin did to bring this exceptional piece alive. We were spellbound as the music slowly gathered itself to reveal its main themes. It seemed as if Weiyin worked the pedals more than most and yet the emphases of the music always seemed appropriately understated and in keeping with the meditative state she so well describes.
Shubert’s Sonata is on her debut CD and you can hear this snippet of it on youtube—
Schubert’s Sonata is also deeply personal for Weiyin because it was one of the works she performed for one of her mentors, Claude Frank shortly before he died last year. Deeply personal too is her commitment to running, which began six years ago partly in an effort to stay strong and positive when her mother was diagnosed with cancer, a battle her mother is still winning to this day.
Weiyin’s other musical mentors include conductor-pianist Leon Fleisher and pianist Richard Goode, among others. Her first encounters with piano were when she was four and living in Taiwan. She first became a student at Juilliard at the age of 14, returning to the United States where she had previously accompanied her mother, who was then a fellow at The University of Pennsylvania Hospital.
In fact nearly everyone in her family—mother, father, brother, uncle—is a physician, which has given Weiyin moments of wondering why music, instead of medicine became her calling. That conundrum was apparently settled for her when she accompanied her famed surgeon father on a mission to India where she complemented his medical relief efforts with performances. Her very good thought is that she tends to souls, while the many physicians in her family heal bodies.
And our souls were soothed-- both by her choice of repertoire and her deeply inspired performance. How lucky Chicagoans are to see rising stars like Weiyin Chen in these early career moments. Clearly she is headed for the world’s major stages. Not only has she soloed with major orchestras in Asia (Hong Kong Philharmonic Orchestra, China National Symphony Orchestra) but she now also says she has found her musical family with Netherlands’ Camerata RCO, members of the Royal Concergetbouw Orchestra. She is also likely headed back to India and other nations where medical care is scarce and soul transporting musical performances like hers likely even scarcer.
The Dame Myra Hess Concert series showcases newer talents of the world’s chamber music scene every Wednesday at 12:15 PM in the Preston Bradley Hall in the Chicago Cultural Center, 78 East Washington, Chicago.
For more information see the International Music Foundations web pages.