Concert Review: Sandra Wright Shen at Pianoforte, April 2, 2017

Thursday, April 20, 2017

By William Clark

20170402_191831469_iOSThe Pianoforte concert series, sponsored by the Asheville Art Museum through the direction and patronage of Mr. Harry Rowney, recently concluded its eighth season with a remarkable recital by Sandra Wright Shen, a pianist who has now appeared three times in Pianoforte concerts over the years (2014, 2015, and 2017). Ms. Shen has concertized at prestigious venues all over the world, in 14 different countries and throughout the US including the Kennedy Music Center, the Chicago Cultural Center, the Monte Carlo Opera House, and the Forbidden City Concert Hall in Beijing, among many others. She is a First Prize Winner in several piano competitions, including the 2012 International Piano Competition of France, the 1997 Hilton Head International Piano Competition, and the Taiwan Piano Competition. Ms. Shen also spends several months during the summer on the faculty of the nearby Brevard Music Festival, performing and teaching. Readers are encouraged to watch for her performances in this venue during the summer months.

As we have come to expect from Ms. Shen from earlier appearances, her program was beautifully balanced and formidable in its repertoire. She opened with a rarely heard transcription by Harold Bauer of an aria from Bach’s Cantata, BWV 127, “Die Seele Ruht in Jesu Händen” (My soul rests in the hands of Jesus), followed by Franz Schubert’s last piano sonata, the great Sonata in B-flat major, D 960. At the request of Ms. Shen, the Schubert followed shortly after the completion of the Bach/Bauer transcription without interruption for applause. In different ways, both of these pieces were meditative and very deep, and they made a powerful combination for the first half of the program.

The second half of the program featured one of the greatest works by Robert Schumann, his Fantasie in C Major, Op 17. Ms. Shen prefaced each half of the program with a few comments about the history and structure of each piece, and it was particularly interesting to hear her demonstrate at the keyboard the hidden influences of late Beethoven in various places within the Schumann Fantasie. These very brief introductory comments made the whole experience rather collegial and informative, without being didactic.

Ms. Shen’s treatment of each of these works was absolutely beautiful and transparent. The Schubert and the Schumann in particular present formidable technical and interpretive challenges, although you would not have noticed this in the seamless performances by Ms. Shen. The Schubert D 960 is one of a triptych of sonatas composed in the last months of his life. Schubert’s piano sonatas were only rediscovered and made available to a wider public within the last 80 years or so, largely through the efforts of Artur Schnabel. It took several decades for his sonatas to gain traction and acceptance by performing artists and the general public. By now, there are several excellent recorded cycles of these sonatas, but they remain something of an acquired taste. They do not lend themselves easily to the adolescent virtuosity of many pianists on today’s concert platforms. Ms. Shen, by contrast, has already proven herself to be a consummate musician. Her reading of Schubert’s difficult final sonata was penetrating and soulful. The Fantasie in C major, Op 17 of Schumann has been described as an extended love letter to his future wife, Clara Wieck, from whom he was forcibly estranged at the time of this composition. It is alternately pensive, sorrowful, and ultimately triumphant in its message, and Ms. Shen plumbed every depth of its beautiful sentiments without the least hint of exaggeration or self-indulgence.

Her performance of this difficult repertoire ranks with the very best that I have heard on any concert platform or on recordings from the last 40 years. She is a powerful musician who deserves greater exposure in the United States on recital platforms and in concerto repertoire with the best orchestras in this country. There is no shortage of Young-Lions-of-the-Keyboard from all over the world who are much-acclaimed for their ability to perform any virtuosic passage as loud and as fast as humanly possible but who are unable to see beyond the bar lines to the next measure as regards the musical continuity and the narrative thread of the greatest keyboard literature. By contrast, Ms. Shen puts her technique and virtuosity entirely at the service of the composer. To quote from a review of one of her concerts from several years ago: “…the real power of [Ms. Shen’s] 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 ability is elusive; most performers take it for granted that they are communicating a coherent narrative, but very few achieve it with any consistency.” That says it all, in a nutshell. Although Sandra Shen has an active concert agenda in many countries in Europe and the Far East, one wonders how long it will take those in the classical music business here in the United States (agents, promoters, managers, conductors, etc.) to connect the dots as regards a musician of Ms. Shen’s caliber.

In the meantime, our local community is fortunate to have Sandra Shen in our midst. She appears periodically at the Brevard Summer Music Festival and will undoubtedly return to the Asheville Art Museum’s Pianoforte concerts in the future. Do yourself a favor, and do not miss her next appearance.

From the Community

“[Sandra Wright Shen’s] program was a tour de force: beginning with J.S. Bach’s ‘Die Seele Ruht in Jesu Händen,’ followed by the mighty Schubert B-flat Sonata, and ending with the powerful and magical Schumann Fantasie. This was an incredible program performed by an incredible pianist. Those two forces kept the audience in rapture and had many in tears throughout the recital and most especially at its conclusion with that otherworldly and profound last movement of Schumann’s Fantasie, performed with utmost grace and with an overarching movement from beginning to end. It felt as though we were all suspended together in a timeless space. This was an opportunity to hear music performed by a pianist who not only played with impeccable integrity regarding the score but also with the ability to convey to the audience the overall architecture of each composition and convey with such sincerity the depth the mystery, the joys, and sorrows that were projected with amazing technical and musical abilities, communicating the heartfelt essence of each work.”

—Anna Hayward