A Review of Sandra Wright Shen’s Pianoforte Recital

On Sunday, April 6, the Asheville Art Museum was thrilled to welcome internationally-acclaimed pianist Sandra Wright Shen as part of the Museum’s 2014 Pianoforte Recital Series. Asheville Area Piano Forum board member William Clark wrote a review of the recital:

Sandra Wright Shen: A Pianoforte Recital

by Asheville Area Piano Forum Board member William Clark

Last Sunday, April 6, approximately 60 people were present for a very special concert event at the Pianoforte Series held in a small gallery of the Asheville Art Museum. The event was a piano recital by Sandra Wright Shen, who is a visiting professor at the Brevard School of Music. Ms Shen, who has concertized at prestigious venues all over the world, is a 1st Prize Winner in many piano competitions, including the 2012 International Piano Competition of France, the 1997 Hilton Head International Piano Competition, and the Taiwan Piano Competition, among others. At the recent Pianoforte Series concert Ms Shen provided a beautifully balanced and well diversified program as follows:  Bach Partita #1 in B-flat major;  Liszt:  Les jeux d’eaux à la Villa d’Este  (The Fountains of the Villa d’Este);  Ravel:  Jeux d’eau (Fountains);   Zhao Zhang:  Pi Huang (Moments in Beijing Opera);  Peixun Chen:  Autumn Moon Over the Calm Lake;  and Sergei Rachmaninoff:  Piano Sonata #2 in B-flat minor, (revised version, 1931). The program was formidable, as those familiar with this repertoire will know, ranging from the Baroque era to the late Romantic to the early modernist. The two pieces by Chinese composers are relatively unknown to Western audiences and provided an interesting contrast of texture and cultural commentary. Ms Shen prefaced each set with a few comments and musical examples from the score to illustrate a point or two. This made the whole recital very informal and collegial, and many in the audience felt like visiting friends rather than anonymous patrons.

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There was much to admire in Ms Shen’s performance of these works, clarity of finger-work, remarkably varied tonal palette, finely delineated dynamic range, natural and unexaggerated phrasing, etc., but for this auditor, the real power of her work was exhibited in her grasp of the musical architecture of each piece in its entirety and in her ability to communicate this narrative in performance. This quality was nowhere more evident than in her performance of Rachmaninoff’s 2nd Piano Sonata. [By the way, this ability is very elusive; most performers take it for granted that they are communicating a coherent narrative, but very few achieve it with any consistency.] This particular sonata is notoriously difficult, both technically and musically, for the performer and the audience. Its construction is very dense, internally awkward, and downright opaque in some places. It has been much abused on the concert stage and in a number of famous recordings. Ms Shen’s performance was penetrating; it took the score at face value and carefully unraveled the dense layers of its construction to reveal the composer’s obscure, but beautiful vision. Her seamless and unlabored technique was equal to any of the demands of this complex sonata. While she exhibited plenty of power where it was called for, she was never tempted to cover up the structure of the piece by racing through the bravura passages in a fit of Barnum & Bailey virtuosity. It was a beautiful performance, as was the entire recital. This event was one of the very best programs produced by the Pianoforte Series, and it was a privilege to be present. Ms Shen spends several months during the summer on the faculty of the Brevard Music Festival, performing and teaching. Readers are encouraged to watch for her performances in this venue. Music lovers should not miss the chance to hear a musician of this caliber.

The Pianoforte Series presents three to four concerts every year and is now entering its eighth season. Its producer, Mr. Harry Rowney and its sponsor, The Asheville Art Museum, are to be complimented on the consistently high quality of these presentations. The performers for these events are predominantly recruited from local musicians, or those with local affiliations in the East Coast area. These concerts may be one of the best-kept secrets in the local arts scene. The venue contains art exhibits which are regularly changed during the year, and it is an intimate setting with excellent acoustics. Seating is limited to about 80 patrons. Readers are encouraged to seek out this wonderful series of piano concerts which are advertised through The Asheville Art Museum. The next Pianoforte Concert is scheduled for Sunday, August 17, 2014. It will feature pianist Alexander Schwarzkopf. Mr. Schwarzkopf has programmed one of the cornerstones of the standard repertoire, the Goldberg Variations of Johann Sebastian Bach.