Pianists Sean Chen (2013) and Drew Petersen (2017), the two winners of its classical section, share their experiences at APA.
“Sean Chen and Drew Petersen represent the zenith of piano playing. Both have unique musical gifts and interests, and are deeply compelling performing artists. I regard them as being in the top echelon of their generation of American pianists,” says Joel Harrison, APA’s longtime leading force.
The American Pianists Association nurtures the artistic growth of America’s top young pianists by focusing on creative expression and career development. Its largest and most prestigious support is given through a biennial competition known as the American Pianists Awards. Since its founding in 1979, the American Pianists Association has supported 46 winners.
Growing out of its initial installation as the NYC Beethoven Foundation in 1979, the pianists support initiative moved its headquarters to Indianapolis in 1982, broadening its mission and brand as the American Pianists Association (APA) in 1989. Conceived by the late Victor Borge, Tony Habig of Kimball International, and Julius Bloom, former general manager of Carnegie Hall, APA continues to involve a variety of business experts to advance its pianists’ careers with great opportunities.
Throughout the nineties, the foundation implemented its important piano competitions, accommodating classical and jazz performers, which developed over time into two even-handed branches. In its current format, APA offers two unique fellowships in jazz and classical piano performance for all of its candidates holding American citizenship, ages 18-30. Each competition award is valued at over $100,000 including cash prizes, fees, publicity, and performance and recording opportunities. APA’s competitions are held alternating every two years, deciding a winning fellow for each category, classical and jazz, every four years respectively.
Indicative of the high regard for its artistic nature, APA takes great pride in producing its competition cycle not as an Olympic spectacle, but rather favoring, much like the Gilmore or MacArthur Fellow programs, individual artistic sensibility and expression over competitive prowess. The competitors’ nominations are submitted secretly by a worldwide committee of industry professionals.
“All of our competition events are produced as public recitals and feature the finalists in a variety of settings. We greatly value the individual artistic sensibilities of each pianist, [and] very much wish to nurture such individuality and do not impose any repertoire requirements during our competitions other than those necessary for the different genres,” explains Joel M. Harrison.
During his longtime leadership at APA, Joel M. Harrison, the organization’s current Artistic Director (since 2001) and President/CEO (since 2008) helped develop APA’s present format to best serve its objective, which he describes as: “striving to bridge young artists’ professional training with a full-fledged professional concertizing career.”
Harrison implemented many of the transformations that lead to APA’s current format, among them the organization’s equal status between its jazz and classical branches, and the development of its stronghold within the local community.
One of APA’s significant educational and community outreach programs is its Concerto Curriculum, in which all chosen candidates perform for and interact with students and adults in schools, multi-service centers, and retirement homes. These encounters serve as special communicative experiences for the performers, while building interactive experiences with the artists for local residents.
Those schools with an orchestra or jazz band may qualify for a residency with one of the APA fellows or finalists, culminating in a public performance. Other Concerto Curriculum events take place in the form of a master class, a workshop, or a solo recital followed by a question and answer session. These events are free of charge to the host site/organization. Each competition year, APA reaches over 5,000 people through these programs and performances.
Joel M. Harrison, DMA
Artistic Director & President/CEO
American Pianists Association
PART I – PIANIST SEAN CHEN
Pianist, Composer and Arranger SEAN CHEN is APA’s 2013 classical piano competition winner. Third prize winner of the Van Cliburn competition that same year, he shares some of his experiences.
“What really makes the APA competition special is that every finalist gets rewarded; we become part of the larger APA family. Compared with the Van Cliburn, as one of the eliminating competitions, the atmosphere at APA is less competitive and much more personal, as one gets to meet everyone involved over quite a long period of time,” he explains. Some of his friendships with other musicians developed from their mutual time spent working on APA performances.
Born in Florida, Chen grew up in the Los Angeles area of Oak Park, California, and studied at MIT, Harvard, and the Juilliard School.
When we meet, I am surprised to hear that he considers himself more of an introvert, as he is easy to talk to. He performed a brilliant recital at IKIF, the esteemed summer festival in NYC, and attended many of his colleagues’ performances. “Showing this kind of support, is less common than one would think. I always like to make an effort to come and hear others’ concerts; it’s just what I do, and you always learn something,” he says, mourning that some of the coarser aspects of the music business have rubbed off on that gesture of common courtesy and respect for others’ accomplishments. “Everything is so competitive these days, artists fight for the same available concerts, but we are also all in it together!” he exclaims.
A multifaceted musician, Chen also transcribes, composes, and improvises. His transcriptions of such orchestral works as Ravel’s La Valse, Mozart’s Overture to the Marriage of Figaro, and the Adagio movement of Rachmaninoff’s Symphony No. 2, have been received with glowing acclaim and enthusiasm, and his encore improvisations are lauded as “genuinely brilliant” (Dallas Morning News). His Prelude in F# was commissioned by fellow pianist Eric Zuber, and subsequently performed in New York. An advocate of new music, he has also collaborated with several composers and performed their works, including Lisa Bielawa, Jennifer Higdon, Michael Williams, Nicco Athens, Michael Gilbertson, and Reinaldo Moya.
He especially appreciates APA’s personal approach that has translated into warm relationships with the other contestants. “It did not feel so much as we were being judged, but rather performing together,” he says.
The repertoire for APA gets locked in before the competition to avoid repetition, which is a special treat for pianists and audiences alike, especially when it comes to the final concerto performances of the competition; it also reduces the stress involved with preparation. Usually, the performer does not even know if he/she will make it into the final round for the concerto performance. With all the repertoire to cover, the practice for the concerto easily falls a little by the wayside. At APA, the concerto is performed by all competitors, with quite a bit of rehearsal time granted to the performers, which makes for a much more satisfying and higher-level performance; it’s a win-win situation.
“The way it worked is as follows: Before I even heard of APA, I was nominated anonymously. My teacher at Juilliard, Jerome Lowenthal, had heard of my nomination, but I was not selected yet, just nominated, and that happened way before the actual competition took place,” Chen remembers. Currently residing in Kansas City, Missouri, Chen is a Millsap Artist in Residence at the University of Missouri-Kansas City Conservatory of Music and Dance, and he and his wife Betty, a violinist with the Missouri Symphony Orchestra, are expecting their first child.
“Once nominated, I had to submit a recording. A year before the competition in 2013, the panel of jury members made their pre-selection of the finalists, who were then notified. There is a yearlong residency, which started in 2012 until summer of 2013,” he explains. Having served on the jury of international competitions, the West Virginia International Piano Competition, Cleveland International Piano Competition for Young Artists, and Steinway competitions around the country, he knows a little about jurors’ preferences.
About his own teaching experience, he says: “It has made me a better pianist. Many pianists are concentrating too much on the technical things, rather than on phrasing, which is all-important.” And it is perhaps that quality that has led critics to describe his performances as “alluring, colorfully shaded renditions” (New York Times) and “genuinely sensitive” (LA Times).
“The competition process continued with all five finalists coming to NYC, where we had an event at the…original Steinway Hall venue on 57th street. Each of the five contestants went on to the so-called “Premiere Series” in Indianapolis for outreach concerts and an adjudicated solo recital and concerto performance with the Indianapolis Chamber Orchestra. Every month, a different competitor was seen by a different set of jurors during these performances. In April of 2013 the “Discovery Week” started, when all five finalists arrived in Indianapolis for a week of adjudicated events. Performances included solo recitals, outreach concerts, performance of a quintet as well as a concerto performance with the Indianapolis Symphony Orchestra,” explains Chen.
“I really enjoyed my performances for APA, I even dared to play some of my own arrangements, encouraged by the fact that APA looks for individual qualities in its pianists. Its about you as a performer, not as a competitor,” he says.
As the competition’s winner, Chen received the 2013 Christel DeHaan Classical Fellowship: a two-year fellowship worth $100,000, including a $50,000 cash award and career assistance for two years, including publicity, public performances, and other opportunities.
Chen has performed with many prominent orchestras, including the Fort Worth Symphony, Indianapolis Symphony Orchestra, Kansas City Symphony, San Diego Symphony, Knoxville Symphony Orchestra, Hartford Symphony Orchestra, Louisiana Philharmonic, and the Milwaukee, North Carolina, Pasadena, Phoenix, Santa Fe, and New West Symphony Orchestras, as well as the Chamber Orchestras of Philadelphia, Indianapolis, and South Bay. He has collaborated with such esteemed conductors as Leonard Slatkin, Michael Stern, Gerard Schwarz, Nicholas McGegan, Miguel Harth-Bedoya, Marcelo Lehninger, and James Judd. Solo recitals have brought him to major venues worldwide, including Jordan Hall in Boston, Subculture in New York City, the American Art Museum at the Smithsonian in Washington, D.C., the National Concert Hall in Taipei, Het Concertgebouw in Amsterdam, and the Salle Cortot in Paris.
With an avid interest in science and technology, Chen also is the webmaster of http://labs.seanchenpiano.com/, which connects his interests in programming and music. You can learn more about how he navigates his musical and mathematical proclivities in his blog; his latest post explores an intriguing concept, calculating polyrhythms, which I won’t pretend to even start to understand.
PART II – Pianist Drew Petersen
Like Sean Chen, Drew Petersen, APA’s winner of the 2017 classical piano competition remembers his participation most fondly.
“APA is a very generous, extended family, invested in its participants. From the beginning I felt embraced by this ecosystem of pianists and welcomed by an incredible Midwest hospitality. And if someone is so generous towards you, it is easy to be generous in return, and try to give the best you can,” he says.
Petersen also appreciated being in the know about the program and the final concerto performance. “To know that I was definitely performing a concerto with orchestra allowed me to prepare in a different head space,” he says. “I prepared with lots and lots of practice with a second piano playing the orchestral part,” he shares. “I also had the opportunity to perform with a smaller orchestra, and it gave me the chance to turn over every stone. Knowing every potential pitfall on my part is the best way to prepare to be able to adjust quickly,” he says.
As we chat about a million different things that go into a good piano performance, I wonder if it is possible to be ‘too prepared,’ at the cost of a certain freshness or intensity of the performance. But Petersen explains: “I had to fill in once on 24 hours’ notice, performing Beethoven’s Emperor with orchestra. I am learning very quickly and have a good number of concerti in my hands, but while there was a lot of adrenaline and energy going, there is no substitute for experience,” he says.
To gain experience as a performer and communicator is certainly an important goal of APA’s diversified outreach programs and cluster of performances. “One gets to perform quite a bit of repertoire, which is a great preparation for a career where one has to constantly juggle different programs. Since winning APA, my concert schedule has really changed and that has also changed my outlook on preparation. On one hand, you feel more secure, on the other, it also makes you more critical… I sometimes don’t recognize some things I did in earlier recordings of my playing, and then certain things I do still identify with now at this stage, but my goals are constantly developing. I am not satisfied necessarily to be faster or louder, but [rather I] strive to get closer to my ideal tone. How to play freer and more spontaneously without losing control: that’s the ideal balance one is after,” he explains and adds: “I don’t have the privilege like Kissin to delve into one program or one composer for a whole year in a repeat program. I constantly think about a good recital program, which pieces to add or include, and at the same time try to not bite off more than I can chew,” he says, “so the program choices become more and more important the more one performs.”
Similar to the famed Kissin, Petersen showed prodigal musical talent at a very young age. He came from a family of non-musicians, and in his youth, Petersen’s parents were advised to seek out the great talent coach Miyoko Lotto at the Manhattan School of Music. “He could barely reach the pedals, but he played with every adult nuance you’d ever want…this is really a genius,” Lotto said about the young talent, as quoted by Andrew Solomon in his book, Far from the Tree, on child-prodigies. Throughout his youth, though, Petersen’s parents remained adamant to implement the attention needed to foster this kind of talent within the landscape of a healthy and happy childhood, unburdened by the pressure of lofty career goals. They let him take the lead when it came to his creative development. Enrolled in a Montessori school and then a private school program, by sixteen he was halfway to a Bachelor’s degree of a home school program developed by Harvard. Solomon describes: “Sue and Joe Petersen always put their son Drew’s personal needs before his talent, but the two often seemed to coincide…within the year, Drew was performing Beethoven sonatas at the recital hall at Carnegie Hall and was flown to Italy to perform in a youth festival where the other youths were a decade older than he.”
For his debut recording, released on the Steinway label in 2018, Petersen, from Oradell, New Jersey, featured an all-American musical heritage. Griffes’ Three Fantasy Pieces, which fuse elements of late Romanticism, French impressionism, and Russian mysticism, to Ives’ Concord Sonata, a work inspired by American Transcendentalism that also incorporates the iconic four-note motive from Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony, the repertoire Petersen selected for his debut recording highlights the diverse breadth of influences that went into American classical music of the 20th century. Incidentally, Ives himself was an inspiration for Elliott Carter, whose complete Piano Sonata also appears on this recording. Petersen’s album also includes the first-ever recording of Attars by Judith Lang Zaimont, which was originally commissioned by the American Pianists Association for the 2017 Awards.
About the recording experience, he says: “It was actually much less painful than I expected it to be. Rather than getting every note exactly right, for me it was more important to [record] bigger takes at once, making the result more faithful to the overall artistic rendering. I find studio recordings to be challenging because it’s difficult to recreate the energy of the live performance without the large space and atmospheric presence of the audience. That challenge is there regardless of the repertoire, but it helps to relate intimately to the pieces to generate a more dynamic approach and vitality,” he says.
Petersen has just completed his Artist Diploma, studying with Robert MacDonald at the Juilliard School, where he also finished his undergraduate and graduate studies. With his performance schedule growing rapidly, Petersen’s piano career is managed by the prestigious Opus 3 Artists.
“There are infinite ways to go about a great performance,” he feels. “We have to be compelled to listen from moment to moment, not to get bored. As musicians we deliver an experience that has to be convincing; music is in constant flux and one subtle rubato can change everything.” But despite all his studies, he also believes that there are some questions better left unanswered in order not to lose the magic.