Kevin Chen plays hide and seek with music

We were impatiently awaiting the debut, Sunday at Pro Musica, of Alberta pianist Kevin Chen, crowned with several victories in international competitions. A program mastered on a technical level, but which surpassed the young talent on a musical level and left us greatly unsatisfied. The name of Kevin Chen, 18, winner at 16 of the Liszt Competition in Budapest, then first prize in the Geneva Competition and the Arthur Rubinstein Competition in Tel Aviv, is added to the list of Canadian pianists who have emerged on the international scene for 10 years.

We obviously think first of Charles Richard-Hamelin and Bruce Liu, revealed by the Chopin Competition, but also of Tony Yike Yang and JJ Bui, awarded in Warsaw and respectively 5e in 2015 and 6e in 2021, or to Jaeden Izik-Dzurko, who won the Hilton Head and Maria Canals Competitions in 2022. There is also Tony Siqi Yun, protégé of Yannick Nézet-Séguin and their joint agency, who will soon play with the Métropolitain at Carnegie Hall. We probably forget some.

Difficult program

Kevin Chen, at the dawn of giving, in the 2e Concerto by Saint-Saëns, his first concerts with orchestra in Quebec, Toronto and Ottawa, played his first recital in Montreal on Sunday with a program of the “it goes or it breaks” type, opening with a Sonata of Beethoven, the 28e, op. 101which says everything about the conception and depth of sound, the conduct of phrases, the management of the pedal, the musical maturity of an artist.

Who should be blamed? The pianist or his entourage, a teacher or an agent who told Kevin Chen to expose himself like this? To go, in fact, to the pipebreaker. That the Calgary native is a gifted keyboard player is obvious. The Toronto Conservatory even attests that it has mastered 100 important works. All this is very beautiful and certainly allows it to win competitions, but to interest musically spectators paying for a recital, who chose this Sunday to come to Pro Musica rather than go see the Escher Quartet at Ladies’ Morning (what a blunder!), that’s a whole different story.

The challenge is to find, for the moment, the works which reveal the pianistic and virtuoso qualities of Kevin Chen while masking his gaping limitations, the main one of which is that all of this is unfortunately “only” piano and very rarely music.


Kevin Chen has a sonic awareness, certainly, a luminous playing, with a generous pedal in the first section of the Fantasy of Mendelssohn or a poetry just in the Sonnet 123 by Petrarch. There is also a very well assumed virtuosity in The waltz Or Reminiscences of Norma, even if the sound production is quite unambiguous and massive (compared to the sound digging of Benjamin Grosvenor at the same age in Liszt).

We do not see what would nourish the entire body with a sound relief which would amplify the narrative side of the Reminiscences. About the Sonata of Beethoven, especially this one, to play it at this stage with such stylistic immaturity is pure madness. The waltz by Ravel shows very exactly what is wrong on all sides: the narrative of Liszt/Bellini, since Kevin Chen in no way tells what is happening in The waltz by Ravel. Beethoven’s musical, since Kevin Chen, in Ravel, cannot tell anything as he has no concept of transitions between phrases or the depth of sound planes. Why, and with what color, does Ravel (or Beethoven) go in this or that direction? How do we explore the “vocalization” of a sentence to illustrate an idea?

It would therefore be appropriate to choose a repertoire that hides these lack of perspectives, not one that puts the spotlight on them. As it stands, it is not with this decorative pianism that we translate the content of theOpus 101 by Beethoven.

We did not follow the Geneva or Rubinstein Competitions. We therefore have no opinion on the choice of juries, even if we are taken aback regarding Geneva which has, in its history, revealed a number of piano poets, the opposite profile (Fellner, Ursuleasa, etc.) of what we have perceived on Sunday. As it stands, we will be delighted to hear in the coming week the virtuoso Kevin Chen playing the sympathetic Concerto No. 2 by Saint-Saëns, which will fit him like a glove.

As for its future, as it stands, we are not betting a kopeck on it. But this current state means nothing. Another gifted violinist, Kerson Leong, also had a period, around the age of 17 or 18, when everything seemed too easy and acquired. He later became a great musician, after attending the Queen Elisabeth Conservatory in Brussels. If Kevin Chen thinks that having gleaned his prizes “he’s done it,” he’s making a big mistake. Everything begins, on the contrary, because behind the digital parade, there is music. And it’s about finding it. For him, much more than for others.

Pro Musica

Recital Kevin Chen (piano). Beethoven: Sonata No. 28, op. 101. Mendelssohn: Fantasy op. 28. Ravel: The Waltz. Liszt: Sonnets 47, 104 and 123 of Petrarch, Reminiscences of Norma. Salle Pierre-Mercure, Sunday February 25, 2024.

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