Pianist Gloria Chien: Getting personal with a new Vermont presence

Pianist Gloria Chien

Jim Lowe
THE LOWE DOWN

Pianist Gloria Chien is becoming a familiar face in Vermont. Since becoming the wife of violinist Soovin Kim and co-artistic director of the Lake Champlain Chamber Music Festival, she has been heard regularly around the state. And, next weekend, she will perform as soloist with the Vermont Symphony Orchestra.

For Chien, it’s all about sharing.

“I’ve been given this incredible gift to make music, and to make music with people that I love and have looked up to and admired all my life,” she said by phone from her Boston home. “For me, it’s to do it to the best of my ability, and at the same time to be able to give back to the community.”

Chien shares with Kim the need to use music to make their world a better place.

“We’re very blessed to have the life we have,” she said. “And on the flip side, we’re constantly looking for ways we can use that to make an impact for other people as well.”

Chien will be the featured soloist in Dmitri Shostakovich’s Piano Concerto No. 1, Op. 35, with the VSO, and VSO principal trumpet Mark Emery, conducted by Music Director Jaime Laredo, at 7:30 p.m. Friday at Rutland’s Paramount Theatre, and at 7:30 p.m. Saturday at the Flynn Center in Burlington.

Also on the program are Ludwig van Beethoven’s Symphony No. 7 in A major, Op. 92, and Ellen Taaffe Zwilich’s Concerto for Horn and String Orchestra (1993) with VSO principal Shelagh Abate. A free “Musically Speaking” discussion precedes each concert at 6:30 p.m.

Shostokovich’s Piano Concerto No. 1, which was premiered in 1933, is actually titled Concerto in C minor for Piano, Trumpet and String Orchestra. Still, the work is more a piano concerto with solo trumpet. It’s also quite exciting, but with some deeply introspective sections. Next weekend will be Chien’s first performances of the work.

“It’s thrilling,” Chien said. “It’s really hard physically, it’s very virtuosic. With Shostakovich, it’s the rhythmic drive, frantic sometimes. It’s irresistible in some ways. So it will be very exciting for me to put it together with the orchestra for the first time so see how it all comes together.

“I love the piece,” she said. “It’s a language that I don’t play very often, but I really do connect with it.”

From her birth in Taiwan, Chien was exposed to classical music. Her mother was a violinist in the Taipei Symphony, and her father, not a musician, wanted her and her brother to be musicians and music teachers. She started piano at age 5, and violin even earlier with her mother, along with her brother, who is now a violinist.

At 14, Chien came to the United States to attend the Walnut Hill School for the Arts outside of Boston, where her brother was two years ahead of her. There, she studied with Kha Kyung Byun, who is married to pianist Russell Sherman.

“I came to study with her mainly, but it was good to have my brother there already,” Chien said.

At 16, she won the Boston Symphony Concerto Competition, resulting in an appearance as soloist with the venerable orchestra.

“It was the first time I played with an orchestra — ever — a little overwhelming,” Chien said, adding she got a surprise at rehearsal.

“I grew up playing violin with orchestras in school, and coming in on the conductor’s downbeat,” she said. “I was always early. I didn’t know with a big orchestra you come in right after the conductor gives the downbeat. It was kind of a big lesson to learn on the stage of Symphony Hall.”

More personal for Chien was her performance, as a high school senior, of Chopin’s Piano Concerto No. 2 with the youth orchestra of Boston’s New England Conservatory.

“It was basically everybody from my school on stage with me, so it was really great,” she said. “It was like chamber music in a way. You look around, and it’s the most supportive environment. It was the last big concert before I graduated high school.”

Chien earned her bachelor’s, master’s and doctorate degrees at NEC, continuing to study with Byun and Sherman.

“They were obviously great teachers for me,” she said.

Chien got her first job right out of NEC, teaching at Lee University in Cleveland, Tennessee. She remained there for 11 years before returning to Boston three years ago.

Chamber music has long been Chien’s major musical focus. Recently she and Kim formed a piano trio with Paul Watkins, cellist of the Emerson String Quartet and Laredo’s son-in-law. The Chien-Kim-Watkins Trio performed several concerts earlier this year.

“It was really rewarding and satisfying to play with Paul, rehearsing,” Chien said, “some of the best chamber music experiences for me.”

And, last month Chien and Kim performed piano quartets with Laredo on viola and cellist Sharon Robinson, Laredo’s wife, in Indianapolis.

“I’m very, very spoiled,” Chien said.

Chien has been enjoying playing solo and concertos lately, but it was a challenge at first.

“I spent most of my life practicing,” she said. “You get caught up in your little world. You walk on stage and you’re in your little bubble.”

Chien feels that it was chamber music that liberated her from that feeling of solitude.

“I used to be very scared, intimidated to be on stage on my own, but now I kind of reach out to the audience,” she said. “If you connect with people, and that makes their life a little better for a couple hours, it’s great. If I don’t make a fool of myself.”

Vermont Symphony Orchestra

The Vermont Symphony Orchestra, conducted by Music Director Jaime Laredo, will perform Beethoven’s Symphony No. 7, Shostakovich’s Piano Concerto No. 1 with pianist Gloria Chien and Mark Emery on trumpet; and Ellen Taaffe Zwillich’s Horn Concerto with Shelagh Abate:

Friday, May 4: Rutland — $20-$32, $10 for students, Paramount Theatre, 7:30 p.m., 802-775-0903, www.paramountvt.org.

Saturday, May 5: Burlington — $17-$62, $10 for students, Flynn Center, 7:30 p.m., 802-863-5966, www.flynntix.org.

Both concerts will be preceded at 6:30 p.m. by the free “Musically Speaking” discussion; for more information, go online to www.vso.org.