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Melvin Chen to perform piano arrangements of orchestral works

Faculty pianist and Deputy Dean discusses recital program and its challenges
November 26, 2018
Melvin Chen, faculty pianist and Deputy Dean

Melvin Chen

Faculty pianist and Deputy Dean Melvin Chen’s 2018 Horowitz Piano Series recital program features Otto Singer II’s solo piano arrangement of Brahms’ Third Symphony, Sibelius’ piano arrangements of his Finlandia and Valse Triste, and Ravel’s Valses nobles et sentimentales. We spoke with Prof. Chen, whose background includes piano and violin studies, about the repertoire and his recital preparation.

Q: How did you arrive at a program of piano arrangements (with the exception of the Ravel)?

A: I’ve always loved orchestral music—when I was playing the violin, one of my favorite things to do was to play in an orchestra. So while I’m almost always a pianist now, my love of orchestral music hasn’t diminished, and this is my way of staying in touch with the orchestral repertoire as a performer.

Q: What are some of the more challenging aspects of these arrangements? 

A: The Sibelius pieces feature music that is quite direct and powerful, although in different ways, so the piano arrangements retain those qualities. The Brahms is a different beast—the textures are thick and contrapuntal, so I find it quite difficult to handle on the piano, not just physically, but also mentally.

Q: Has your approach to practicing changed at all as a result of playing piano arrangements of orchestral music?

A: Of course when one plays orchestral arrangements, you can’t get the original instruments out of your head. So it informs the way I practice these pieces, and stretches my technique. For example, how can I create the legato of the strings, or illustrate the differences in timbres of each of the wind instruments?

Q: What do these arrangements tell us about the compositions—that is, what do they reveal that we might not hear the same way in orchestral performances?

A: Because of the nature of the piano, these works, especially the Brahms, are revealed in a more skeletal way. I think it’s easier to hear the large scale structures.  Also, because there is only one person playing, there are expressive possibilities that can be realized in a way that might be impossible for an orchestra to achieve.

Q: Ravel orchestrated his Valses nobles et sentimentales a year after the work had its premiere as a piano collection. Has the composer’s orchestral arrangement informed your approach to the original?

A: Ravel was such a master of orchestration that knowing how he orchestrated each waltz gives you a clear idea of what he was thinking about the color and mood he was going for. In a way, a pianist can feel like he is receiving a coaching from Ravel!

Q: What would you want the audience to know about the program before listening to it?

A: I’m interested in thinking about the purpose of these arrangements. There are mundane reasons why someone would make a piano transcription of an orchestral piece—it was a way of getting to hear new works before there was technology like the CD or Spotify. But for the audience, does hearing a piano transcription change the way you hear the orchestral piece? In the case of the Ravel, was there something missing from the piano version that prompted him to want to orchestrate it?

Faculty pianist and Deputy Dean Melvin Chen performs Otto Singer II’s arrangement of Brahms’ Symphony No. 3, along with works by Sibelius and Ravel, on Wednesday, Nov. 28, at 7:30 p.m., in Morse Recital Hall.

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MELVIN CHEN

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