Pianist John Chen Wins Again


A review by Professor Barry Vercoe Mus D

John Chen.  Photo: Supplied

John Chen. Photo: Supplied

When a panel of judges is handed a stack of paintings to pick one, they rifle through them in some order, looking for excuses to move each from stack A to stack B until only one is left.  When the choices exist only in time – ice skating, music performance – judges award points or develop favourites en route.  They don’t expect the final entrant to blow the others away and go to the head of the line.

Yet this is what happened in Sydney in 2004 when 18 year-old New Zealand pianist John Chen was the last on stage in the prestigious Sydney International Piano Competition.  Chen not only won but has kept on winning.

We sampled this talent on Saturday at the 3rd Tauranga Musica concert in the Graham Young Youth Centre at Tauranga Boys College when Chen played a demanding programme.

American Samuel Barber’s 1949 Sonata is a favourite there, rarely performed in this country.  Its Adagio has wonderful broad lines that magically resolve in other registers, while the closing Fugue is full of energy that allowed Chen to show off his pianistic mastery.

Beethoven Opus 111 is always touching as his last piano sonata.  The closing movement includes delicate transitions that Chen executed with skill, and a forward-driving dotted rhythm finale.  The quiet pensive ending left us wondering what else might have been on that great composer’s mind.

Quite the opposite thought accompanied two character pieces by Mendelssohn.  These are works by a teenager, albeit a mature one since they followed his masterful Overture to Midsummer Night’s Dream.  Far from wondering what else might be on his mind, we actually know, and the outcome never lived up to the youthful promise.  But these pieces displayed an early contrapuntal mastery that Chen delighted in.

Hindemith’s 1936 Sonata uses a harmonic system of his own, and its four movements give us little to hang onto.  Yet each is built on a simple rhythmic pattern not unlike a 14th century isorhythmic motet, and Chen brought this out for the discerning listener.

This concert held a capacity audience in rapt attention.  Kudos to Tauranga Musica.  The next in their series is in Tauranga Park Auditorium on Sunday July 20.


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