Pianist Han Chen may only be two years into his D.M.A. at The Graduate Center, but he’s already a celebrated performer and seasoned veteran in the recording studio. He released his debut album — of Liszt’s operatic translations — in 2016, and will follow it Jan. 24 with an album of Anton Rubinstein’s sonatas. Not one to rest on his laurels, Chan has already completed a third album, which was meant to assemble British composer Thomas Adès’ complete works — that is, before Adès went and wrote another.
Chen’s oeuvre so far reflects his mission as a performer: to bridge past and present by uniting classic and contemporary composers. Those two periods don’t often come together on a program, but Chen’s search for honesty in classical music means no era is off limits. His deft virtuosity, which The New York Times described as a “graceful touch,” infuses each composition with an emotional sincerity that communicates the truth existent in art’s most universal language.
The Graduate Center: You’ve mentioned choosing Rubinstein’s sonatas because they capture some essence of humanity. What is it that you hear?
It’s the consistency versus the evolution of the material. In sonatas, there’s a formula to the music that it should constantly change, and Rubinstein used that form so well that you feel this ever-changing mood throughout the composition. But at the same time, all this changing material was connected to the same motif, so you feel that consistency throughout. You don’t feel like those episodes are disconnected. Rather, they are a series of life events that were drawn together as one life in the composition itself.
GC: What kind of truth are you interested in unearthing as you play?
I think in order to be consistent, one has to be honest, and I’m always looking for honesty in compositions. Of course, we don’t need to talk about all the great composers — they all have very high standards of honesty in their music. They are trying to show their real emotions. But there are compositions, sometimes, that are not as honest. It’s hard to put in words. For example, when you are trying to make dramatic events, those moments can easily stay on the surface rather than become emotional or intimate. You’re only trying to create louder sounds or passages, and those don’t really move the audience.
GC: Kind of a false drama?
Yeah, and I think it’s very easy to do that: to make events or passages not as honest. Rubinstein and Liszt, when they write those flashy and virtuosic moments, are thinking about the emotional connection to those events. That’s what I look for. I don’t look for a certain truth or emotion, but rather how they put those things together.
GC: You have a third recording coming out this year on Thomas Adès’ work. What do you connect to in his music?
I came across his music when I was still in high school and I fell in love. There’s a different level of virtuosity in his music, and there are intimate moments I really connect to. When I was still in high school, I listened to one of his pieces called Traced Overhead at night alone. It feels like the music understood what I was like.
GC: Turning to your education, why did you choose to come to The Graduate Center?
The Graduate Center is very special for musicians, I must say. First of all, it’s a very friendly community. The school also gives a lot of freedom to students to pursue what they really want in their education, and it also provides a variety of classes and opportunities, so that whatever you are looking for, you can find in The Graduate Center. It’s an especially interesting system for pianists or instrumentalists like us because we can reach out to different professors in the New York area.
GC: Is that how you came to be working, in part, with Professor Yoheved Kaplinsky from the Juilliard School?
Yes, I have half my lessons at Juilliard and half at The Graduate Center. It draws a different perspective as a student, I think, to have different opportunities to study, and that really captivated me when I was choosing a school.
GC: What are you specializing in?
I specialize in piano performance, but composition is my interest.
GC: You’ve composed, correct?
Yes, we just had a composition performance for non-majors last semester. It’s a course provided for people who are not specialized in composition. It’s a class for performers to write music, which was really common in the 18th and 19th century, but now it’s actually rare to have performers write music, and I think the course is reviving that tradition.
GC: How did making your second album compare to the process of the first?
You know better how to prepare.
GC: What did you learn in between?
The mindset. As a piano student, you have to record a lot for school auditions and competitions, but those recordings are different than a commercial recording. For a commercial recording, you record a whole lot of chunks of different music over several days. You don’t record the whole thing as one shot — you can play one movement over and over, and then you choose the best take, and maybe even the best bits, before putting it together. And that’s the big challenge. You don’t want the music to sound disconnected. Younger pianists may not know that’s the case and they expect to play the whole thing over, so they don’t practice how to put the emotion in playing bits of music.
GC: It sounds similar to filming a movie, where it’s made it shot by shot.
Exactly. And you have to put yourself in that scene immediately, and it’s usually not chronological.
GC: What are your ambitions?
Artistically, I really want to play more living composers’ music. Nowadays, there’s a huge gap between the classical and contemporary worlds. I feel like it’s my mission to draw some connection between these two worlds by performing both in the same concert.
GC: Who is a contemporary composer that you enjoy performing?
Recently, I performed a piece by Lei Liang. He won this huge prize, the Grawemeyer Award. I performed in Boston at a festival, and he came to coach me. That was so inspiring. I looked at music differently — not only his music, but all music. He looks at one single note from different perspectives all the time. He would experiment with one note 10 different ways, and look for the best way to interpret the music, and I think that is so inspiring to imagine all the possibilities. I will play the same piece in my upcoming recital at The Graduate Center on March 11 at 7:30 p.m.