Van Cliburn International Piano Competition
May 25 - June 10, 2017

Van Cliburn International Piano Competition

Sean Chen, the Crystal Award 2013

Hailed as a charismatic rising star with “an exceptional ability to connect with an audience combined with an easy virtuosity” (Huffington Post), the American pianist Sean Chen won the Crystal Award during the 2013 Van Cliburn International Piano Competition at 28 years old.


How the Cliburn Competition change your life?
The most important thing for a young performer is to have concerts. Because I was a prize winner I was able to tour around the country and play concerts, building up experience, repertoire, and connections. With those, I was then able to get return engagements and build relationships with various presenters and orchestras. The competition itself was also very important, being able to perform in front of such enthusiastic audience members both live and on the webcast, being able to work with the Brentano Quartet, Maestro Slatkin, and the FWSO [1], and being able to be a part of such a wonderful group of musicians.
What did it mean to your career to win this award?
Without concerts, we cannot be performing pianists, so having an award at the Cliburn allows me to continue to do what I love to do, and also be able to make a living while doing it.
How did you choose your repertoire / programme ?
I have outlined my strategy for repertoire in my blog. I would say the must-have pieces for me were the Beethoven Hammerklavier, Scriabin 5, Ligeti L'escalier du diable, Bartok Etudes, and Brahms Variations Op. 21 No. 1. Since the rounds at that point were structured a bit differently, I was able to put the Hammerklavier on its own in the second round, which was non-elimination from the first, and put more variety on the first, which included Bach, Bartok, Chopin, and Scriabin. I had people respond enthusiastically previously to my Bach French Suite (which I do some unique ornamentation and articulations in) and the Bartok, which not many people dare play, so I felt good about that round. Similarly, in the semifinals, the Ligeti Etude had previously been received well, so I felt confident with that. The Brahms [Variation] Op. 21 No. 1 is not played very often, and so I think it was a good choice for a piece that was a bit more off the beaten path, but not too strange. I also played Ravel Valses nobles and Stravinsky Petrouchka, of which I incorporated material from the orchestral version, so I hoped that that would help differentiate my performance from the other “Petrouchkas”.
What was the most striking / memorable moment?
Obviously,  it's a pretty hard thing to forget when your name was announced to receive a prize. But I also very much enjoyed my time playing Rachmaninoff [Concerto3 with the FWSO and Maestro Slatkin. I also really enjoyed all the culinary adventures I had with the Wilsons, my host family!
How do you feel about the Van Cliburn Audience?
Awesome. There are people ranging from beginning audiences to veteran listeners and superfans. It is very good to have people of all ages, backgrounds, nationalities, and professions being excited about classical music. Of course the live audience members and everyone involved with the Cliburn showered us with Fort Worth's famous hospitality.
Are you still in contact with Cliburn’s laureates?
I do talk to Vadym [2] sometimes, and if we're in the same city we definitely try to see each other. But we're usually all traveling to different places. I see Fei-Fei [3] sometimes when I get to New York. Otherwise, I haven't really seen any of the other laureates. There are a couple of competitors from the other rounds that I am friends with and talk to pretty regularly, though. They've gone on and won some big prizes and teaching positions, so it's great to see everyone from the family doing well!
How do you feel about becoming a big star in such a short time?
Well, "big" is relative. It is very exciting to be recognized by piano students and piano lovers around the country, and it is great to be able to have many engagements with orchestras. But you can never rely on that name alone; the real work comes afterwards. The pursuit of artistry never stops, and there are always things to learn and discover.
What are your upcoming projects?
I'm very excited to be playing a program of Mompou Variations on a theme by Chopin, Ravel Miroirs, and Medtner Sonata-ballade in some upcoming recitals. I'll be doing some chamber music at the Festival in Iowa, which is run by a composer colleague; I'll be performing a cool percussion-piano piece by Paul Kerekes with a percussionist also from Kansas City. I'll be guest artist at the Young Artist World Piano Festival in St. Cloud, Minnesota, doing a recital and masterclass there. Finally, my wife Betty and I will be in Sunriver Valley, Oregon, where she'll be in the orchestra, and we're doing Beethoven Choral Fantasy and Grieg Piano Concerto. Then the fall season starts, and I'll be happy to revisit some Beethoven Concerti, perform for the first time Shostakovich Concerto No. 1, and Medtner's Piano Quintet, among other things.


[1] Fort Worth Symphony Orchestra

[2] Vadym Kholodenko, Ukrainian pianist, was the winner of the  Gold Medal at the Fourteenth Van Cliburn International Piano Competition, 2009.

[3] Fei-Fei Dong, Chinese pianist, was a top finalist at the Fourteenth Van Cliburn International Piano Competition, 2009.

Join the #Cliburn2017 club

Get exclusive information, news and updates... Subscribe to the #Cliburn2017 newsletter!

The 2017 Cliburn webcast is presented by:

  • The Cliburn logo
  • logo