[ Interviews ]
Meet the Festival’s New Director
As most of you know, Melvin Chen has joined the Festival as the new Director. We begin our “Meet The Director” Series with a few questions and answers that we hope will help you get to know him a little.
What was the first work of music that grabbed your attention? Any thoughts of what specifically hit you from that piece?
There are several works that made an indelible first impression on me – I clearly remember hearing the Brahms piano quintet for the first time. I don’t know what grabbed me, probably the passion and excitement. I also remember the Schubert cello quintet and how transcendently beautiful it was.
If you had to pick one work to introduce someone to the wonders of chamber music, what would it be?
I would definitely pick the Schubert cello quintet — it really demonstrates for me the paradox of great music — it is both simple and complex, often embodying opposing feelings simultaneously. One feels in the piece both joy and sadness at the same time.
Is there another work that is a favorite of yours that you do not perform (perhaps from another genre beyond violin or piano such as orchestral or opera)?
I am partial to large orchestral works, like the big Mahler symphonies, numbers 2, 3 and 6-9. Also big Strauss tone poems like Zarathustra and the Alpine Symphony.
Are there any pieces you’d give a wide berth and offer to someone else? Is there a work which you never wish to perform again?
I’d definitely give any piece to someone else — I’m always curious to hear someone else play pieces that I know well, and I’m especially curious to hear someone play it much differently than I would. I always learn something from hearing other people play. That’s why I learn a lot from my students! I can’t say that there’s a piece I’d never perform again — there definitely have been pieces that I haven’t enjoyed, but I’d blame myself for that first rather than the piece.
What is your favorite work to perform and what about it appeals to you? Are there any composers you are keen to introduce to the Norfolk public?
I don’t have a specific favorite — there are many that I enjoy performing! When I am performing I am looking for new things in old and familiar pieces, and curious to learn about music that I may not be familiar with. I hope to share this process with the Norfolk public, and to see where this shared curiosity takes us.
Is there anything we might expect that may be different at the Festival with you filling the role of Director as a performing musician, beyond you performing?
I believe in programs that have an entry point for the listener — this may mean programs that are centered around an idea or a person. Or it could mean preconcert talks that give the listener some context. Or it could even mean using a familiar work to introduce a piece that might not be so familiar.
Do you have any pre-concert rituals?
Not particularly, although I like to nap the afternoon of a concert day.
What does an ideal Saturday morning look like for you?
Probably standing outside watching my son at a soccer game.
What single thing would improve the classical concert experience for listeners?
I think we have to continue to break down the barrier between performer and audience. Especially for chamber music, which was written for much more intimate settings than a concert hall, the performers and the audience really have to have a shared experience, not one experience for the performers on stage and another for the audience listening far away.
When preparing a work for the first time, how soon do you start looking at the score? Do you listen to recordings of works you’re preparing for performance?
This has changed for me as I get older. When I was younger, I was playing more pieces and learning them in shorter periods. I remember a summer years ago where I performed more than 40 different pieces, and I was probably learning the new pieces in two weeks. Now I like to live longer with pieces, so I’d prefer to start work on them months in advance and learn them more leisurely. I can’t handle the stress of cramming anymore!
And to steal a question from the New York Times book section, what books are on your night stand right now?
These days I am reading for escape and pleasure, so you’ll find Michael Connelly and Lee Child on my night stand!
And of course there is your multi-faceted background in physics and chemistry as well as the violin — your world beyond the piano. How have you managed that? Do you still have any involvement with either of those?
I don’t know that I “managed” it. For me there were many things that interested me and I let myself explore these things. Of course my parents started me on the violin first and then piano later and maybe the science also came from my parents, who were both scientists. And they all were interesting enough to me that I didn’t want to stop learning. I mainly play the piano now, although I perform on the violin maybe five or six times a year. There is a festival in NC that is kind enough to let me perform on both instruments down there, and next year I’ll play violin and piano with a youth orchestra in CA. So I’m happy to play either when I get the chance, but these days it’s mostly piano, which is totally fine with me.
Finally, are there any highlights for this season you’d like to offer?
We’re still in the midst of planning, but following my comments above I plan to create single programs or even longer “mini-festivals” exploring a particular theme or composer. We’re also planning a series of weekly chamber music masterclasses open to the public, so that listeners can see the ways in which pieces are brought to performance and how different faculty approach the teaching process.