New Jersey Symphony Orchestra artistic director Neeme Jarvi has singled out two pieces for special handling during the last week of the orchestra’s three-week-long winter festival, “Russian Romantics,” with original piano versions of compositions preceding the expanded orchestral transformations that they inspired. “The Great Gate of Kiev” from Modest Mussorgsky’s “Pictures at an Exhibition” appears first in its original piano version and the orchestra follows with Maurice Ravel’s transcription of the piece. Mily Balakirev’s “Islamey” is followed by Sergei Liapounov’s orchestral transcription of the piece. The solo pianist is 21-year-old Jie Chen.
These concerts are designed provide the listener with exceptional insights into pieces on the program. For example, although the piano is the most orchestral of instruments, even its sonorities lack the richness that comes from their sonic expansion by skilled orchestration. To many ears, the orchestral versions are more familiar than the piano originals.
The program for the third week of the festival, “Russia’s Mighty Five,” focuses on a group of Russian composers intent on establishing a distinctive Russian school of composition. In addition to music by Mussorgsky and Balakirev, pieces by Alexander Borodin, Cesar Cui, and Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov are included. Performances of “The Mighty Five” take place Thursday, January 25, at the State Theater in New Brunswick, and Friday, January 26, at Trenton’s War Memorial.
Week two of the festival, entitled “Tales of Tchaikovsky,” includes orchestral performance as well as art and film events in New Brunswick. Pianist Alexander Markovich solos in Tchaikovsky’s Piano Concert No. 2 on Sunday, January 21, at the State Theater. Thirty-minute tours of imperial Russian art take place at the Jane Voorhees Zimmerli Art Museum on Rutgers’ New Brunswick campus Sunday, January 21 at 12:30 p.m. and 1:30 p.m., preceding the concert.
In addition, during week two, the film “Emerson, Lake and Palmer: Pictures at an Exhibition” will be screened Friday, January 19, at 6 p.m. in Rutgers’ Scott Hall, on College Avenue in New Brunswick, as part of the New Jersey Film Festival. The interpretation of the Mussorgsky piece by Emerson, Lake and Palmer, a progressive rock trio, was at first suppressed in the United States, but released a year later after its phenomenal success in Europe. The rock-film account of the piece brings to three the various readings that come from the Mussorgsky work, taking its place alongside the piano and orchestral versions.
I ask pianist Chen in a telephone interview from her home in Philadelphia whether knowing the orchestral transcriptions of “The Great Gate” and “Islamey,” the pieces she plays on the NJSO program, affect her interpretation of them on the piano. “My performances of both the pieces are influenced by the orchestral versions,” she says. “There’s more color with the orchestral instrumentation. The phrasing is different, and so is the rubato when an orchestra plays the pieces, so I think about the orchestral version. I don’t try to copy. They’re still piano pieces, but there still is an influence.”
The two versions of the pieces resound against each other in Chen’s mind, and she thinks knowing both enhances the listening experience. “The piano version has a more accessible form,” she says. “Once you know the piano form, it makes strong impression. When you hear the orchestral version, your mind wanders back to the piano version. Thinking about it makes it particularly rich.”
Struck by noticeably different interpretations of “Islamey,” I mention to Chen that some performers allow the opening to fly, and some make it plod, and wonder about her choice of tempo. “Every time I play it, it’s slightly different,” she says. “How I feel, how the hall sounds, and how the piano sounds all play a part. If the piano is very responsive, and has a fast action, the piece sounds good fast. But sometimes, for instance if you’re playing a Bosendorfer with a heavy action and the hall is resonant, you have to take your time in order to articulate.”
Some recordings of the piece incorporate a perceptible space at the end of the opening phrase, which I ask Chen’s opinion about. “I’m not crazy about that, but I see where the idea comes from,” she says. “The performer must be thinking of dancers. `Islamey’ starts with a country dance from the Caucasus. People who make the pause must think of the dancers taking a rest.”
Grand prize winner of the second International Piano-e-Competition in 2004, Chen played “Islamey” in the solo round of the contest. “‘Islamey’ is one of my all-time favorites,” she says. “It’s one of those obstacles that never gets any easier no matter how often you play it. I’m discovering new things in it every day.”
“The Piano-e-Competition was the first major competition that I entered,” Chen says. “I was 19. I went not expecting to win. When I looked at the brochure, I saw so many big competition winners. I went to learn, and to see how they play. It was the summer, and I treated the competition like a summer festival. The first three rounds were at Hamlin College in Minneapolis. We had great practice facilities and great living facilities.
“The final round was a concerto with the Minnesota Orchestra in Orchestra Hall, St. Paul. It’s a great hall with great architecture. The prize was a Yamaha Diskclavier piano. I use it regularly.”
The Diskclavier is a conventional piano equipped to record a performance digitally as computer data. The data can be transferred electronically to other instruments or to sites capable of receiving and reproducing them. At slightly more than six feet, Chen’s prize Diskclavier is as big as a medium-sized grand piano.
“Because of the Diskclavier, the Piano-e-Competition was the first competition to have simultaneous broadcasting,” Chen says. “Now all competitions are doing it.”
A Yamaha artist, Chen plays a Yamaha piano at the NJSO concerts. The Japanese-made instrument is a minority presence on the concert stage. In the 2005-’06 season 98 percent of orchestral soloists chose to play Steinway. Yamaha and other piano makers made up the remaining two per cent.
Chen was born in Guang Dong, China, in 1985 to music-loving parents. She started playing piano at four and was accepted into the Shanghai Conservatory at eight. At 12, she came to America with her mother, an electronic engineer, in order to audition at Philadelphia’s Curtis Institute. Her father, who works for an import-export company, remained in China.
The transition to the United States was “quite a big change,” Chen says, underlining the words “big change” with her voice. “The most difficult thing was to come here, be totally exposed to this society, and have to live up to high expectations. I adapted well to the new environment. I solved problems. My mom doesn’t speak English, so I had to take care of daily things in terms of talking to other people.” Chen learned some English in Shanghai. Beyond that, the rest of her English developed without formal instruction.
Among her challenges in Philadelphia was being plunged into an American high school. Curtis has an affiliation with a private Philadelphia high school that permits students to attend academic classes for half a day and spend the rest of the day at the music school. There are no special arrangements for Curtis students below high school age. Chen confronted the problem before her English began to thrive. “I had to go to high school,” she says, “but I was middle school age. So I went to high school when I was 13.”
At Curtis, Chen studied with Claude Frank and Seymour Lipkin. In 2006 she won Curtis’ Festorazzi Prize for best pianist of the year. Since her graduation from Curtis she has worked with Jerome Rose at New York’s Mannes College of Music.
“Jerome Rose is not only a good musician, but a good organizer,” Chen says. “I’m learning about the connection of music to society. He concentrates on the bigger picture. Before I worked with him I was a very detail-oriented person. Both Frank and Lipkin at Curtis are great musicians, and when I was with them, I was much younger. I changed as a person. When an artist is growing, they need different things. I felt I needed broad strokes.”
Continuing to learn, Chen has also been amassing a formidable list of performing appearances in the United States and abroad. During the 2005-’06 season she played Chopin’s First Piano Concerto with the New Jersey Symphony Orchestra under Neeme Jarvi.
She readily describes the experience. “You practice differently when you play alone and when you solo with an orchestra. You’re still looking for the same musical things. But there’s a mental change. When you practice a concerto you have to imagine a 100-piece orchestra behind you. Your sound has to match the instrumentalists or be on top of them. A lot of proportions have to change.”
Chen found working with Jarvi thoroughly satisfying. “Not only is he a good conductor, but he is one of the most amazing musicians I’ve ever met. During rehearsal, he exchanges ideas. He wanted to hear my opinion. He loves to help young musicians. He’s always looking for ways to make an old piece sound new. He’s innovative. He’s not afraid of ignoring convention.”
Her memory of rehearsing the Chopin concerto with the NJSO reveals how Jarvi works and how he allows soloists to make his ideas their own. “In the third movement of the Chopin, the theme recurs,” Chen says. “It comes back six or seven times. One time it goes to another key.” Jarvi proposed ignoring the marking there that specifies maintaining the tempo. “The score says ‘a tempo.’” Chen says. “Jarvi says to make it sound other-worldly, ignore the marking, and play it like a recitative. The orchestra doesn’t have much to do, so I could be totally free, floating in the air. At the end of the passage, we returned to the original tempo, fast and sparkling. It was a very good dramatic contrast.”
At “Russia’s Mighty Five” concerts Chen can indulge her admiration for Jarvi and enjoy him without stress. Once she has played her piano solos she can relax and listen to the orchestra free of further responsibilities.
Tales of Tchaikovsky, Sunday, January 21, 3 p.m., New Jersey Symphony Orchestra, State Theater, New Brunswick. Neeme Jarvi conducts works of Tchaikovsky and Osyannikov-Kulikovsky. Pianist Alexander Markovich is soloist. $20 to $75. 800-ALLEGRO.
Russia’s Mighty Five, Thursday, January 25, 8 p.m., State Theater, New Brunswick, and Friday, January 26, 8 p.m., Patriots Theater, War Memorial, Trenton. Neeme Jarvi conducts works of Mussorgsky, Ciu, Balakirev, Borodin, and Rimsky-Korsakov. Pianist Jie Chen is soloist. $20 to $75. 800-ALLEGRO.