Alum Sean Chen Advances to the Cliburn Finals

Nick Romeo continues his coverage on From the Top alumni in the Van Cliburn Competition. Sean Chen, 24, who appeared on Show 134 when he was 17, has advanced to the finals and will perform on Friday night.

by Nick Romeo

Sean Chen, 24, with the Brentano Quartet Photo: The Cliburn/Ralph Lauer

Sean Chen, 24, with the Brentano Quartet
Photo: The Cliburn/Ralph Lauer

Sean Chen is now one of six finalists in the Cliburn.  This weekend, he will perform two concerti with the Fort Worth Symphony Orchestra and maestro Leonard Slatkin.  On Friday night, he will play Beethoven’s fifth piano concerto. On Sunday night, he will play Rachmaninov’s third piano concerto.   I found a moment to chat with Sean about his experience at the Cliburn and his memories of From The Top.


(Q): How are you enjoying your time at the Cliburn?

It’s been great overall. It’s also been a lot of work; it’s kind of stressful.  Usually at competitions you hang out with the other competitors. You detox, have a beer, whatever. It’s more segregated here.  Since we’re all staying with our host families we don’t really see each other so much. But I have a great host family. They’re wonderful people.


(Q): What is your routine like here?

Eat, practice, eat, practice, eat, practice.


(Q): Have you been happy with your performances so far?

I felt good, but in a couple months I will be hypercritical.  It had been a while since I touched Petrushka.  I was happy with the way it turned out.  Learning the commissioned work was interesting as well. I always start out hating commissioned works, but then I really get to like them as I play them. This was very quirky and had a lot of energy


(Q): What are your thoughts on competitions?

I think most of us agree that they are a necessary evil. You can’t get this much exposure anywhere else. The most important thing is the concert engagements that come after a competition like the Cliburn.  But to be judged constantly in your playing is not really good for creativity. It’s risky to be too creative in a competition. Everyone plays wonderfully at this level, so it’s often just a matter of taste. I had friends who played wonderfully and didn’t pass the first round.


(Q): What do you remember about being on From The Top?

It was a very good experience.  I auditioned at Aspen, and it was reassuring that I could get in. A lot of Juilliard precollege kids were on it, so it was nice to know that I was at the same level even though I was in California. It was nice to meet Chris as well. I remember they did something about how messy my room was. I think they had a skit with Beethoven’s mom yelling at him for having a messy room. I applied to New England Conservatory and I remember they gave me extra money for being on From The Top. I ended up going to Juilliard, but it was nice.


(Q): What are your plans after Texas?

I’m still at Yale, doing an A.D. I have one more year. I probably want a doctorate some day as well.

Nick Romeo’s most recent book is Driven: Six Incredible Musical Journeys. Read more at