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A Pianist’s Search for Honesty in Music

The poet Henry Wadsworth Longfellow credited music with being the universal language because it communicated essential truths in ways speech failed. Pianist Han Chen, a D.M.A. student at The Graduate Center, CUNY, has spent his career as a performer searching for one particular truth — honesty — in pieces by classic and contemporary composers alike. 

Some compositions treat human drama theatrically, he says, but with those, “You’re only trying to create louder sounds or passages, and those don’t really move the audience.”  Instead, he  prefers composers who have “very high standards of honesty in their music.”

His new album — his second with Naxos Records — brings together Anton Rubinstein’s Sonatas Nos. 1 and 2 with three of his serenades. Rubinstein’s honesty, Chen says, comes about through his consistency. “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,” he says. “But at the same time, all this changing material was connected to the same motif, so you feel that consistency throughout.”

If there’s one element of consistency to Chen’s career, it’s his passion for combining classic and contemporary composers on the same program. “Nowadays, there’s a huge gap between the classical and contemporary worlds,” he says. “I feel like it’s my mission to draw some connection between these two worlds by performing both in the same concert.”

To that end, he’s already wrapped up his third album, which focuses on contemporary composer Thomas Adès. It’s a passion project that’s long been on Chen’s mind. “I came across his music when I was still in high school and I fell in love,” he says. Adès’ compositions connected with Chen on a deep level, but whatever they communicated — that ingrained understanding Longfellow described — hasn’t been as easy to translate. As Chen admits, “I can’t really put that in words.” 

Chen will perform a recital at The Graduate Center on March 11 beginning at 7:30 p.m. The event is free and open to the public.

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