For years she has worked with her father, renowned surgeon Hung-Chi Chen, to raise funds for charitable activities in the field of medicine. Their “Music & Medicine” humanitarian foundation arose from Dr. Chen’s development in the 1990s of a way to restore the gift of speech (and even song) to cancer patients who had lost the use of their vocal cords.
Growing up in a family of doctors linked music and medicine in Weiyin Chen’s mind from an early age. “As a concert pianist,” she has said, “my goal is to also become a healer, a healer of people’s soul or spirit through music.”
She’s also actively pursuing conducting – specifically exploring the complex task of leading an orchestra from the piano.
But piano and healing are not the sum total of her creative life. During the COVID-19 pandemic, with concerts and travel canceled, she earned a certificate from Parsons School of Design in New York. Now she designs her own performance wear to reflect the repertoire she’s playing – a creative endeavor that led to a recent feature in Vogue.
Weiyin Chen spoke to us recently via email about the life of a concert pianist in today’s world and how her many interests intertwine.
On 4 July you made your Denmark debut with musicians of the Danish National Symphony Orchestra performing Mozart’s Piano Concerto No. 12 at the Frederiksværk Musikfestival. You also played chamber works by Schumann. Was this your first major festival appearance since the pandemic? What was it like?
It was indeed, and a concert that brought so much light to me during the pandemic – looking forward to finally gathering and making music. We performed at the opening night of the festival. It was my first festival appearance in Denmark and my first public performance in Europe since the pandemic.
The overwhelming joy of the experience, it felt as if I had been healed from the pandemic. This was my light at the end of the tunnel – it’s heartwarming knowing that music is bringing us all together and that there have been people waiting for me, for my music.
You also performed Mozart at your Knoxville Symphony debut in February, and I understand you’re interested in conducting Mozart from the piano. You’ve recorded Mozart too. Have you always had an affinity for his concertos? What do they mean to you as a musician?
My relationship with Mozart has a life of its own. It is still growing, evolving and I feel this is one of the most important relationships I will have in this lifetime.
I’ve been living with his music since I was a toddler, but it started to speak to me vividly much later, around my early 20s – then it began to profoundly and continually blossom. This relationship with Mozart was influenced by the years I was working with Leon Fleisher, who “unlocked” a portal in me.
Recently, encouraged by various mentors, I’ve started to experiment [with] writing my own cadenzas and preparing, studying the scores as a pianist and conductor. This is how Mozart would have approached his piano concertos and it just feels so natural to try to understand his way of music making and thinking. Like a musician, a creator. You take the entire work under your wing.
You studied with Richard Goode, one of the pianists I admire most, and with Claude Frank, as well as Leon Fleisher. How have these great teachers influenced you?
They have all nourished my development significantly, in varying ways. Leon Fleisher has had the most impact on my growth as a pianist, musician, and person. He has transformed my musical DNA more deeply than anyone.
I think it is so important to understand music coming from diverse angles, abundant approaches. Different truths exist simultaneously and learning from different ways of looking at music and playing the instrument gave me insight into understanding “style” – this is something I’m always searching for when listening to a performance. I love old recordings of greats from the previous century, their style and sound are so distinctive that one can often recognize the performer instantaneously.
You got your design certificate from Parsons during the pandemic. What else did you work on (musically or otherwise) during the period when concerts were canceled?
I also studied improvisation, cadenzas, and listened to a lot of jazz music. I also enjoyed the time just being, reflecting, and reading, particularly Rumi’s poems. I think more than anything, the great opportunity this pandemic gave me was recognizing the importance that spontaneity and creativity play in my daily life. Every moment CAN turn into pure joy and wonder. It’s up to you.
You designed a dress specifically for the Schumann Piano Concert. Was it the love story of Robert Schumann and his wife, the renowned pianist-composer Clara Schumann, that inspired the design? The music itself? Or both?
Preparing Schumann’s Piano Concerto was unlike any other concerto for me. While absorbing this work, I found myself completely enraptured, taken by his writing. You really get a glimpse of his inner world in this music. So much so that the “Clara theme” appeared in my dreams.
It is his one and only piano concerto. The way he encoded Clara’s name throughout the piece, it is as if you are reading a musical love letter he was writing to his wife. The design was a creation of both their love story and the music.
This season I designed several concert dresses for [my performances of] Mozart. They were inspired by the color palette of his portraits and stylistic elements of that period. I’m always curious about my next designs – the way they are conceived is often quite free and spontaneous. Sometimes an idea just pops up.
Would you tell us a little about your Music & Medicine foundation? What have you been doing in this arena?
I have been inspired by my father, who works as a surgeon has led his international team of fellows in many communities in need globally. I joined forces with them in India, and that was the beginning of our Music & Medicine humanitarian campaign together. Teaming up with the Mehli Mehta Music Foundation in Mumbai, I worked with the local young artists in masterclasses and performed in a charity concert to raise money benefiting the surgical camp for children and those who would not otherwise have had access to receive treatments. My father and his team had since performed over a hundred charity surgeries in India.
It is my great wish to continue this meaningful work with other medical and charity organizations around the globe. Especially coming out of the pandemic, there’s so much healing that’s needed in our world and I believe music and medicine can generate thousand-fold healing power as we restore wellness into our lives.
Your schedule has gotten quite busy since the pandemic lockdowns lifted. Where can audiences see you perform in the coming months?
I’m returning to Italy for the first time since the pandemic, performing two piano concertos by Mozart and a solo recital in Palermo. And I look forward to inaugurating the 2022 season with Tchaikovsky’s First Piano Concerto back stateside, in Indiana with the Evansville Philharmonic Orchestra alongside my great colleague and friend, conductor Roger Kalia.