Dr. Melvin Chen is a Professor in the Practice of Piano, the Director of the Norfolk Chamber Music Festival, and has been the Deputy Dean of The Yale School of Music since 2012. As a Professor in the Practice of Piano, Chen teaches a studio of graduate and undergraduate piano students. As the Deputy Dean at the Yale School of Music, he is responsible for overseeing academic affairs and general institutional management.
In his career as a musician, Dr. Chen has received acclaim for solo and chamber performances, which have been featured on radio and television around the world. Chen’s solo recordings include Beethoven’s “Diabelli” Variations (Bridge Records), which the American Record Guide described as “a classic,” piano music by Joan Tower (Naxos Records), and sonatas and other pianos works by Shostakovich (Bridge Records), among others.
The Winsted Phoenix spoke to Dr. Chen about the Norfolk Chamber Music Festival’s tentative plans for summer and his career as a musician.
What’s the status of summer programming at the Norfolk Chamber Music Festival?
I can’t definitively say that the summer program will proceed as we don’t have approval yet. However, we’re planning as though we are operating this summer. We’re optimistic that we’ll have summer activities with students, faculty, and concerts.
Who will be there?
We have faculty and students who will be coming this summer. But early on we decided that the fellows that are coming will only be string and piano because they’re the only players that can be masked. The complement of fellows that are coming is about half the normal size.
What safety protocols will be in place?
Yale will send a team to Norfolk to look at all spaces, check for adequate ventilation, and determine how many people can be in each room. As far as faculty, students, and staff, we will be testing everyone regularly and quarantining them before they are allowed to participate.
Any possibility of having performances outdoors?
There is some approval for outdoor activities from the university, however, they haven’t approved activities under a tent. The problem with scheduling outdoor events is that obviously, you can’t do anything if it’s raining. So those would have to be impromptu events.
Any indications from Yale on the future of live, indoor musical programming?
We’re looking at the possibility of planning things if and when everyone is vaccinated, if we can require that, what the guidelines for behavior might be, etc. We’re still investigating all that but don’t have clear answers yet. Yale is trying to figure it out, and we’re waiting for guidance.
Yale has consistently been more conservative than the state. The reason is an abundance of caution and trying to keep everyone healthy. There have been a few cases at Yale, but they’ve been relatively fewer compared to other places, which is a good thing. So, even if the state opens up, that doesn’t mean Yale will open up to the same degree. Navigating those two things has been complicated.
I’d like to add that all of us were sad that last summer was canceled. We’re doing the absolute best we can so that we have stuff going on this summer.
Will there be a virtual model?
It will be a combination of prerecorded and live-streamed models. We’ve always streamed concerts and will continue to do so whether or not we have live audiences.
Are there any new technological adaptations?
In terms of video broadcasting, we’ll have four cameras instead of one and a director who knows the music. They’ll be able to say, “zoom in on the cello solo.” I think it’ll add to the production value of our streams and make it more attractive.
What’s unique about the program in Norfolk?
It’s unique in its focus on chamber music and the intensity and quality of the teaching. We have an unparalleled faculty, a track record in producing professional chamber musicians, and the beautiful physical location. The Shed has its own distinctive history with California Redwood commissioned by Ellen Battell Stoeckel. The acoustics are amazing, and the look inside and out is incredibly beautiful. The musical history of that place in the early 1900s is really special; basically, every famous musician performed there. When the fellows come for the first time, I tell them how they’re joining an incredibly storied musical history that includes Rachmaninoff, Kreisler, and Caruso and that I expect them to carry it on, to inspire them to follow the footsteps of these musical giants. It’s a special place in music.
Let’s talk about your career. Can you tell us about your work with Joan Tower?
She’s one of the most well-known, modern, classical female composers. She’s very prolific and one of the most important American composers over the last 40-50 years. I met Joan while teaching at the conservatory at Bard College. She’s a great composer, really energetic and fun. We became friends at Bard.
What pieces are you working on now and has the pandemic had an impact on your work?
Yes. Normally, in addition to teaching, I’d be playing concerts. This past year I’ve played very few. Last year was a Beethoven anniversary, and I had a project of performing “Diabelli” Variations. When we can go back to playing concerts again, I plan on playing them live, but I have a feeling that won’t happen until 2022.
This has been an interesting and challenging year for classical musicians. I’ve been continuing to teach at Yale and consider myself very lucky. Some musicians primarily make their living from playing concerts, such as those of the Met Orchestra, who haven’t been able to work this past year. I feel extraordinarily fortunate. It’ll be a challenge to see what the classical music landscape looks like after the pandemic.
What has helped in terms of adaptability?
When working with students, you think about what they need to know to be a successful professional. In addition to being talented musicians, students have to understand the technology and be adept at things like recording themselves with audio and video, as well as marketing themselves using social media.
You can look at it as a challenge and an opportunity. In Norfolk, we potentially have a much larger audience to draw from than in a live concert. Instead of thinking regionally, now you’re looking at the potential of the whole world in terms of attracting people to the program. For Norfolk, it’s our job to market it that way.
Has the pandemic allowed you to explore works that you otherwise might not have?
I’ve been investigating the music of composers of color like Florence Price, who was also a woman, from the early to mid-1900s. I think there’s a lot of music that deserves to be heard that I’d like to bring to the shed. One of the composers brought to Norfolk in the early 1900s was a black British composer named Samuel Coleridge Taylor, whose works I have programmed in the past.
There are interesting stories that could be told relating to composers whose voices might not have been heard, for example, Clara Schumann, the wife of Robert Schumann, or Fanny Mendelssohn, who was the equally talented sister of Felix Mendelssohn. It’s part of my job to put these works out there and let audiences decide if it’s good or not.
Have there been any great learnings from this pandemic?
Being isolated this long, and I’m lucky to have a great family, I feel lucky. I acknowledge that, and there are things you take for granted, for example just being able to go and see live music. You realize that it is a gift.
It’s been difficult for students, especially wind and brass. All they want to do is play with other people. Having that be taken away for them is sad. Not being able to do so has been difficult and destructive for their mental health. Now I realize how powerful and important all that is.
What do you hope for in the future?
I’m looking forward to having a season this summer. We’re doing a ton of planning, and I’m optimistic that it will go ahead.
For more information, look for updates at https://music.yale.edu/norfolk