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Eastern Treasures: A Collection of Asian Folk Songs for Organ and Violin

Fanfare Magazine, January 2013

For years, before and after the Cultural Revolution, Chinese violinists and violinist-composers adapted traditional, folk-like songs for violin, making arrangements of them that sound at times like salon pieces by Fritz Kreisler or even virtuoso showpieces by Nicolo Paganini or Eugène Ysaÿe--alternatively, they've composed new ones in similar styles. Violinist Lewis Wong and organist Chelsea Chen's collection recalls others that I've had the pleasure of reviewing in Fanfare; but they've arranged most of the pieces in their program more recently (and composed several themselves)--what others began so long ago continues to the present day. Their program includes songs from Taiwan and Japan in addition to the ones from China; Chen accompanies Wong on the organ (one made by Dan Garland in 2004 at the Brentwood Trail Presbyterian Church in Dallas, Texas, for most of the tracks and one from 1964 by Casavant for the Jasmine Fantasy) rather than on the piano.

Chen's arrangements of "Rice Dumplings" (by Zhang Qui-dong Song) and "Spring Breeze" (by Deng Yu-Xien)--identified in the notes as Tiawanese songs from the late 1930s or early 40s--feature the violinist preeminently, despite their lively organ parts; with the spotlight thus trained on him, Wong displays a glowing, rich tone in the lower registers and commanding, crisp articulation in the upper ones. He indulges portamentos that would fit well in another era but sound perfectly appropriate in the context of this imported music and help him draw a great deal of almost Western sentiment from these Eastern melodies. Wong's arrangements of Children's Songs for solo violin sound more oriental in their depictions of rain and a leaping frog; they pause to explore a more reflective state before returning to the original raindrops. The notes relate that Chen commissioned "Jasmine," a generally straightforward setting of a Chinese folk song, from composer Yui Kitamura for Chen's debut concert in Singapore.

Chen's own arrangements of Taiwanese folk songs for solo organ (the piquant "Four Seasons" by Yu-Xien, "The Cradle Song" by Lu Quan-Sheng, and the exuberant "Country Farmer" by Su Tong) contrast wide-ranging timbres. The last of these, in particular, sounds so kaleidoscopic as to surpass by far the simplicity of folk settings. So do her arrangements of the pieces she's assembled into the Tiawanese Suite (the bracing and colorful "Hills in the Springtime" by Chen Qui-Lin, the more reflective "Moonlight Blue" by Yu-Xien, and "Mountain of Youth," by Tong, featuring the organ's silvery upper registers).

The alternately starchy and honeyed-toned Wong returns for a set of Japanese tunes, all arranged by Yui Kitamura, beginning with the almost Johann Sebastian Bach-like "Haruga Kita" ("Springtime Has Come"), followed by the allusive "Oborozukiyo" ("Hazy Moon") by Teichi Okano and the burbling, Johann Strauss-like "Hamabeno Uta" ("Song of the Seashore") by the same composer, the plaintive "Makkana Aki" ("Red Autumn") by Hideo Kobayashi. Finally, "Fuyugeshiki" ("Winter Scenery") leads to Yui Kitamura's own nostalgic "Omoide" ("Memories"), in which Wong revels in the violin's lower registers.

Chen's arrangement of "Jasmine Fantasy" for violin and strings, in which the Jakarta Simfonia Orchestra, conducted by Rebecca Tong, accompanies Wong, displays Chen's command of string sonorities: It's a luxurious setting that sounds at moments almost cinematic. The program concludes with Chen's arrangement for violin and organ of Bach's Arioso, (from the Harpsichord Concerto in F Minor). This turns out to be itself an arrangement of an earlier arrangement of the piece by Sam Franko. Violinists generally play this Concerto in G minor, but Chen has not only adopted the higher key, but also assigned the violin's melody to the register an octave below, taking advantage of Wong's sumptuous G-string sonorities. The engineers have placed Wong so far forward that listeners won't have to strain to hear heavy breathing (would any of them want to?).

Those who respond enthusiastically to the westernized arrangements of oriental music that have constituted the bulk of the recitals reviewed earlier should find Chen's and Wong's program highly ingratiating, although they should be forewarned that this one emphasizes the lyrical, rather than the virtuosic, side of this repertoire. But for those who enjoy this kind of thing, this will be a thing they'll enjoy immensely.

Robert Maxham - Fanfare


An Interview with Chelsea Chen

Carson Cooman - Fanfare

With both an active concert calendar and a distinctive repertoire, Chelsea Chen is one of today’s busiest young organ recitalists. Raised in San Diego, Chen studied piano with several members of the Bastien family (authors of the well-known piano method that bears their name) and was introduced to the organ at a summer Pipe Organ Encounter (yearly camps sponsored by the American Guild of Organists to encourage pre-college musicians to explore the instrument). After only two years of organ study, she began her college education at the Juilliard School (with John Weaver and Paul Jacobs) and the Yale School of Music (with Thomas Murray). Chen has won numerous organ competitions and is a frequent performer at conventions of the American Guild of Organists. She is currently Artist-in-Residence at Emmanuel Presbyterian Church in Manhattan. Though she plays many solo concerts each year, one of Chen’s specialties is chamber music with organ, which she has pursued through collaborations with a number of performers. At present, her most active partnership is with violinist Lewis Wong, with whom she formed the Wong-Chen Duo. Chen is also a composer, with a catalog of works for organ (and organ plus instruments) based upon Asian folk music. She has recorded several solo organ CDs and a violin-organ duo CD of Asian folk song arrangements.

Q: What percentage of your time is spent touring, and what do you do when you’re not on the road?

A: I usually make several trips per month. When I am home, I teach some private students and coordinate the special music at my church. We have a lot of collaborations with musicians from Columbia, Manhattan School of Music, and Juilliard, so I organize their playing in services as well as special concerts. The church is quite a young one and is renting the chapel from Union Theological Seminary. Due to time and space constraints, there is no choir, but instrumental music is both frequent and important.

Q: How did your collaboration with Lewis Wong begin?

A: Lewis had been a friend of mine, although we’d never played together. About three years ago, I was playing a house concert in Pennsylvania, and I invited him to come along. Amusingly, the reason he wanted to come is because he was really interested to experience the food in the Amish country! I asked him to bring his violin just in case there was some opportunity to play. Although we’d never played together before, I did have a few pieces for violin and organ (like the arrangement of the Bach Arioso that appears on our CD), and we ended up playing that as an encore on that concert. The audience loved it, and Lewis quickly realized what a viable combination violin and organ is.

We next played together at an international violin festival in Moldova in the National Organ Hall. Lewis had been invited and was told he could bring along a pianist, so he asked them ‘[Considering the name of the venue] Can I bring an organist instead?’ That was a unique concert, since they’d never had an organist come to their festival before. Suddenly, we had to come up with about 50 minutes of music for violin and organ, and we’d only just started playing together! It was rather tricky, since it had to be an all-American program and we didn’t have much repertoire. Since then we’ve played together many times and now have a large repertoire of pieces. We’ve toured throughout the U.S. and internationally in Europe, Australia, and Asia.

Q: Do you find the collaborative nature of performing with the organ to be more challenging than solo playing?

A: I’m not sure I would say “more challenging,” but from a time perspective it is certainly more difficult. I know I can practice a certain number of hours for a solo concert, but for a duo concert I quickly realized that I’d have to do that same amount of practice on my own, plus that amount again with my duo partner! I’d work out all the organ registrations during my solo practice, then Lewis could come, and I’d need to change everything. Once we were in a groove and had played a number of concerts together, I found that I was better able to anticipate things before he came to rehearse with me.

The organ can be a difficult instrument in terms of ensemble coordination because it does not have a sharp/percussive attack like a piano does. The spatial configuration of organ and instrumentalists can also be tricky. In many venues it’s uncomfortable to squeeze the instrumentalists in, and there are no sight lines. Sometimes the organ sounds good in a certain position, but the instrumentalist doesn’t sound good from there. The funniest place was the train station in Cincinnati where I played with Lewis. He had to stand about 30 feet away from the organ in what the curator correctly pointed out was the “sweet spot” of the room. Lewis said that due to the acoustics of the room, the organ sounded totally different in one ear than in his other, so he had to quickly develop a technique of completely shutting off one ear. He’s used that in other venues too since then. I give him a lot of credit, because I don’t think every instrumentalist is capable of adjusting to that kind of situation.

Q: Have you found that your collaborative work has informed your solo playing?

A: I think it’s crucially important to play with other musicians. You learn a lot from hearing somebody else’s musical ideas and by working out your own musical ideas with somebody else. Lewis also encouraged me to write some pieces for violin and organ, and a piece for violin, organ, and string orchestra. I’d never have done that without his encouragement.

A: Have you worked regularly with other instrumentalists besides Lewis?

Q: I have a harpist friend [the mononymous “Arielle”] from Juilliard who is also a fashion designer. We did some commissioning for harp and organ and performed together under the name “Duo Mango.” However, we found it quite difficult to tour with a harp. One has to rent instruments in places or incur huge transport costs. We did a number of concerts, but then Arielle moved more into fashion work, and I began working more with Lewis. We do still occasionally play together. I have played with many other types of instruments too, though. I’ve played with pretty much all the instrumentalist and singer friends I had at Juilliard and Yale.

Q: What drew you to start writing your own compositions?

A: I started composing when I was an undergraduate in Juilliard. I was very good friends with the composition students, and when I told them that I thought I might try writing a piece for organ they were very encouraging. One friend Yui Kitamura particularly inspired me with her pieces based on Japanese folk songs, and Lewis and I later recorded them on our Eastern Treasures album. In my sophomore year I wrote my first piece Taiwanese Suite, basing it on folk songs I heard on a recording. The CD I’d heard was already a series of arrangements for full orchestra, and I figured that if the songs could be done effectively for symphony orchestra then they could be done for organ solo.

I also thought of a good venue to premiere it—the outdoor Spreckels Organ Pavilion in Balboa Park, San Diego, where I grew up. I thought Spreckels would be perfect, and I initially conceived of the piece for that organ and its percussion stops (drums, cymbals, etc.). The first performance used all of those “extras,” but I later adjusted the music so that it would work on any organ. It’s turned out to be my most successful piece, and I’m asked to play it all the time.

Q: Besides the motivation from wanting to explore that part of your heritage [Chen’s father is Chinese], what appeals to you musically in the Chinese folk music?

A: I grew up with two cultures, since my father’s mother lived in our house until I was eight years old, and she spoke only Mandarin. We listened to tapes of children’s songs, and I developed an affinity for that music even as a child. I also went to Chinese school on the weekends (every Sunday for three hours), and we would sometimes be exposed to other folk songs there.

However, the biggest influence was the summer after my freshman year at Juilliard. I spent a month in Taiwan with other college students as part of a cultural exchange program. The idea is that the Taiwanese government encourages “overseas Chinese” children to come back and see the country and be exposed to the food, places, and music. It was such a great time and very influential for me in terms of getting a better understanding of that side of my family’s history. All of that culture was so much more a part of me than I’d realized, and I felt like I could have stayed for years. I then later spent a year living there on a Fulbright fellowship. I’ve since returned many times for concerts and collaborations.

Q: As a composer, do you see yourself branching out from works based on Chinese folk music?

A: I think so. I’ve done a few pieces for church that are based on hymns and non-Chinese songs, although the pentatonic sound and harmonies based on 4ths and 5ths are ending up in whatever I’m doing, because I like those sounds. I’ve also become a bit typecast for the Asian folk songs at this point (not that I mind). Since I’ve written these distinctive pieces, people are asking me for more pieces like them. Last summer when the American Guild of Organists convention wanted a new piece for organ and narrator, they asked if I would base it on a Chinese folk tale. I’ve thought about using some Eastern European songs in the future, as I do like particularly Russian and Polish folk music, for instance.

Q: What about music without organ?

A: At this stage, I want to do as much with organ as possible, because as a performer I want to be involved in playing the music. I have occasionally done things for the church that don’t use organ, but since I know the organ much better than anything else, I feel I can write something for organ that will be a good piece and playable. I also really like the idea of building organ chamber music, so it is the primary area in which I intend to keep working.

Q: You’ve specialized quite a bit in contemporary music in your repertoire selections. How did this come about?

A: It began with my composer friends at Juilliard. There were so many great composition students and composers in the NYC area and they love to write for people they know. So it started there and the more I do it, the more you meet other composers and expand further. At Yale, I had other composer friends who wrote pieces for me, and I’ve kept in touch with all of them. So when I have ideas for new things that I think they should write, I pitch them the projects.

Q: Besides the folk-based music, have you included other non-classical works in your programs?

A: I have played lots of organ pieces based on jazz standards by another former Juilliard classmate Roderick Gorby. He has done excellent arrangements of “Satin Doll” and “I Got Rhythm” among others. I’ve also done an improvised suite based on the score of the Super Mario Brothers video game, which has been extremely popular in concert. It was the only video game that I ever played with my older brother. It was a two player game, but I would have to wait for him to lose before I could finally take my turn. Since he was so good, I spent hours and hours sitting and listening to the same music, and thus became extremely well-acquainted with it! It turns out Super Mario is probably the most universally-known video game to both children and parents. People find it very amusing when played on the organ!

Q: Do you improvise in concert?

A: I do it fairly rarely, though I did do one recently when I had a concert scheduled on Super Bowl Sunday. I decided it had to be acknowledged somehow and did a brief improvisation on one of the NFL themes to start the program!

I do a lot of private improvisation at the organ and piano while I’m composing and working out my pieces. I might change the individual notes and details later, but many of the broad strokes I develop through playing at the organ.

Q: How have you chosen your core recital repertoire?

A: I try to pick things that I feel very passionately about. I don’t really think I can convincingly play literature I don’t like. In college, one has to play everything, and that’s fine. But you quickly start to realize that you’re more interested in certain periods and certain kinds of music. For me my great love is 20th century music in general, which is certainly an area that covers many different styles. I love things from the early 20th century French symphonic music right up to the newest contemporary pieces. I’m interested in having a variety of styles on a concert. So one of my programs might well include some Bach, Mozart, or Mendelssohn, and then some of these late French Romantic works, and then contemporary pieces by people like the Dutch composer Ad Wammes or the Czech composer Petr Eben. My program will often feature one quite new contemporary piece as well, like Ola Gjeilo’s Sinfonietta, a work that I’ve played many times. With a piece like that, I play it often, and I hope that it will have some chance of entering the canon itself. If it’s heard more, then I hope others will play it too.

Q: Do you play transcriptions?

A: I’ve played transcriptions of Fauré and Debussy piano pieces that people love hearing. When you play famous pieces by those sort of composers it fits into the category of the “canon,” but they sound new and refreshing to hear on the organ, which people are not expecting.

I don’t think making big orchestral transcriptions is something that I want to do. I think the pieces are so great and complete for symphony orchestra that I’m not quite sure what I could add in playing them on organ, and so I just couldn’t consider transcribing Beethoven or Brahms or Mahler. These are symphonic monuments and ideal the way they are. When transcribing piano pieces, I feel one is creating something different, since the organ allows for different textures and colors from the piano. But, when one transcribes orchestra music, it seems like one is usually creating a lesser copy of the orchestral original in duplicating it on the organ.

Q: What are some of your upcoming projects?

A: I’m very excited about a new collaboration I’m beginning with a composer-violinist based in France and Germany, Viviane Waschbüsch. I met her when playing concerts in Europe, and she is very interested in collaborating on new pieces and expanding the violin/organ repertoire. So, in the spring I’ll be going back to Europe to play with her. I enjoy working with people based in other countries because it exposes me to repertoire and places I didn’t know.

I was also asked by a Chinese conductor to make a recording of organ and orchestra music, and to make an adaptation of the famous Butterfly Lovers’ Concerto for the program. I just can’t imagine eliminating the solo violin part and re-casting it for organ, so I’m in the process of figuring out what to do. I’m planning to add the organ into the fabric of the orchestra.

And I do want to make more violin and organ recordings, hopefully with both Lewis and Viviane.