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Van Cliburn finalist makes TSO debut

Pianist Sean Chen has heard it all before: “About that hair,” the sentence begins.

That’s when he knows the conversation has shifted from his impeccable playing that earned him a third-place finish in the 14th annual Van Cliburn International Piano Competition in 2013 to the shock of wavy hair that bounces about wild and untamed when he’s sitting at the keyboard.

“My parents gave me good hair genes,” he conceded with a chuckle during a phone call from California last month to talk about his debut this weekend with the Tucson Symphony Orchestra. “Full of volume without trying too hard.”

But truth be told, his hair, long and wavy, is more a result of laziness than genes:

“Sometimes I get lazy and don’t get it cut,” he said. “I don’t do anything to it. I just take a shower and let it air dry.”

When it comes to the piano, Chen is anything but laid-back and lazy. He is driven, focused and fastidious, traits that he has honed and followed since he first started playing piano when he was 4. He practices hours a day, every day, even when he is traveling.

“Music is a liberal arts and you are trying to express things. On the surface, it’s not very scientific,” he said, drawing the similarities between the piano and computers — another of his passions. “But I think it’s important when we practice to approach practicing and problem-solving in a logical way, try to maximize the efficiency of practices.”

Chen is making his TSO debut, performing Mendelssohn’s First Piano Concerto. In all he will perform the piece five times in the next four days under the baton of Conductor George Hanson, with whom he performed last summer at Hanson’s Sunriver Music Festival outside of Bend, Oregon.

Chen described the concerto as “sort of typical Mendelssohn, especially in the last movement with the kind of very rapid and very elegant almost like romantic Mozart in a way.”

“The first movement is more dramatic. You know Mendelssohn was a really good pianist. Obviously he was showing off what he could do, as well,” he said.

In addition to the Van Cliburn — Chen was the first American to make it to the final round since 1997 — Chen also won the 2013 American Pianists Association’s DeHaan Classical Fellowship, one of the most lucrative and significant prizes for American pianists; and made it to the semifinals of the 2012 Leeds International Piano Competition.

The concerto is part of a program that also includes Schumann’s Symphony No. 2, which Hanson performed with the orchestra in his first-ever TSO concert on Feb. 2, 1995.

By Cathalena E. Burch,,