“Dear Father…” is the theme of the final concert in the Aspect Chamber Music Series’ 2022-23 season. All three composers on the program – Mozart, Beethoven, and Paganini – had domineering and, in some cases, toxic fathers who heavily influenced their talented sons for better and for worse. When violinist Stella Chen, cellist Brannon Cho, and violist Matthew Lipman take the stage at Bohemian National Hall in NYC on May 18, they’ll be drawing with their bows not only exquisite music but connections among three composers of different eras and very different qualities of genius.
I was pleased to see that Stella Chen would be part of the Aspect concert, as I had heard her in an earlier performance of the featured Beethoven work, the String Trio in G major, Op. 9 No. 1, with the Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center. I spoke with Chen via email about her perspective on the program and its theme.
Paganini: Virtuosity for Virtuosity’s Sake?
The concert will open with Chen alone, playing Paganini’s Caprice No. 24 in A minor. Having heard renditions of this showpiece by many great artists, I wondered if mastering a piece like this is a kind of rite of passage for violinists.
But Chen said she had never thought about it that way. “I shied away from playing Paganini caprices for the longest time,” she said, “in part because I’ve never been too interested in what I (perhaps a bit callously) deemed virtuosity for virtuosity’s sake, and in part because the caprices are so inextricably connected with competitions in violinists’ minds. But since the Queen Elisabeth competition, I’ve had a mindset change.”
Ah, competitions. They can be so important, even career-making, for aspiring soloists – but can be the bane of their existence too.
Chen – Gramophone’s “One to Watch” for April 2023 – took First Prize at the Queen Elisabeth competition in 2019. Part of the bounty was the use for four years of a 1708 Stradivarius violin. (Chen currently plays another Stradivarius, the ex-Petri, on loan from Dr. Ryuji Ueno and Rare Violins in Consortium, Artists and Benefactors Collaborative.)
Now, she says, she has come to appreciate the Paganini caprices “for all they have to offer musically. I don’t see it so much as a rite of passage – there are so many brilliant young violinists these days who have all sorts of technical wizardry up their sleeves. What fascinates me is the opportunity for charm in these pieces.”
Paganini also makes Chen think of her favorite composer, Franz Schubert. Her love for Schubert is plain on her debut album, Stella X Schubert, released in March on Apple’s Platoon label. “It’s interesting,” she told me, “because Schubert suffered so much during his life in part due to the craze in Vienna over Paganini, and I always felt a sort of unreasonable protectiveness for Schubert and his exquisitely vulnerable music. But I’ve come around to really enjoy Paganini’s unique charm as well.”
The meat of the program consists of music for string trio by Beethoven and Mozart. I asked Chen how playing in the string trio format differs from being part of a string quartet.
She said the string trio format is “particularly fun (and difficult) because it is so exposed and requires virtuosic command from all three performers. The division between accompaniment and melody is less clear than in a string quartet – the roles are much more in flux and we have to dart between roles quickly and seamlessly.”
Alluding (perhaps unconsciously) to the dual meaning of the verb “to play,” in describing Brannon Cho and Matthew Lipman as “close friends and incredible artists,” Chen said that playing with them was especially enjoyable “as we throw each other curveballs all the time.”
The Mozart Divertimento for String Trio, she said, is “incontrovertibly one of the pinnacles of the genre,” and with it “one can’t help but think of characters in an opera.” With its “innocently beautiful melodies as only Mozart could write, the work is effortlessly graceful, gorgeous, and features each voice clearly as a soloist.”
The Aspect Chamber Music website links the three composers on the program through their difficult relationships with their fathers. Greed and ambition made Paganini’s father “a tyrant whose treatment of the young virtuoso left deep scars.” Leopold Mozart was at first “genuinely encouraging, but his son’s vitality and sheer genius proved too much for him, and in the end only an act of outright rebellion set Wolfgang truly free.” Beethoven’s father, a court musician, “was also a drunken bully, who thought nothing of dragging young Ludwig out of bed in the middle of the night to play for his horrible cronies.”
Reflecting on that theme, Chen said that it’s interesting to talk about parent-child relationships in the context of musicians because of the enormous amount of practice required at a young age to grow technically proficient enough to be able to play a string instrument “in the deceivingly effortless way that it is necessary to play Mozart, Beethoven, etc. well. The rumors and stories about Paganini being locked in his room without food, Beethoven’s abusive father, etc. are terrifying – yet somehow these genius composers were able to find outlets for their spirit while learning all the tools they needed to become virtuoso performers and composers.”
But to get right down to it, Chen concluded, “While it’s fun and interesting to speculate, at the end, the works stand alone and speak for themselves as great works of art.”
Stella Chen performs these great works of art with Matthew Lipman, of the Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center, and Paolo Cello Competition winner Brannon Cho at the final concert of the Aspect Chamber Music Series’ 2022–2023 season on May 18 in New York City. Information and tickets are available at the website.