WFIMCafé: Stella Chen
2019 Queen Elisabeth Competition winner Stella Chen talks about having no expectations, Schubert, and a new Strad
WFIMC: Good Morning!
Stella Chen:I am sorry- I am still a little sleepy. There was an event last night. I tell you, there were, I would say there were upwards of 100 people there, but I think I was the only Asian!
WFIMC: So you had a bad time?
Stella Chen: I had a good time... but I'm pretty sure I was the only classical musician. Anyway! All fun. It was great to see you at the Tibor Varga Competition in Switzerland last month.
WFIMC: Was this actually the first jury of a major competition you did?
Stella Chen: Yeah, super interesting. I'm glad to have had that experience.
WFICM: You won the Queen Elisabeth in 2019, right before the pandemic. So, in four years, you “switched sides”. Any thoughts?
Stella Chen: Good thing I am not competing anymore.
Recital at Carnegie Hall
Recital at Carnegie Hall
Stella Chen ©Fay Fox
Stella Chen ©Abigail Kralik
WFIMC: But when you think about the competition back then, what comes to mind first? What are your memories?
Stella Chen: Honestly, my first memory is: getting to play Schubert. I think if you’d ask most people, choosing to play the Schubert Fantasy at a major competition is unexpected! And of course: the moment they announced the first prize. They did it in so many languages, and they had warned us that first prize was going to be announced first, which is rather unusual as well. Apparently, my host family told me that my mom was running around talking to people, saying: did she get first place or last? She had no idea what was going on. Looking back, it was such an incredible moment.
WFIMC: It must have been quite emotional for you when they announced this without any preparation, without the usual step-by-step going through the awards.
Stella Chen: Yes, there was no preparation, but also- people often don’t believe me when I say that I really had no expectations. People often do a lot of competitions, and I did some when I was younger, but I really didn´t do things the traditional way. I had just finished my doctoral courses, and I wanted to fulfill the dream of playing at the Queen Elisabeth Competition before I got too old. So it was just wonderful to advance at every step. I was not prepared for this result, and I would say I’m still in processing this news for a long time, because in a way I was just there to have fun, really.
WFIMC: Did your perception change at all after you joined the Tibor Varga Jury? Do you think Queen Elisabeth should be doing something different? Or Tibor Varga was doing something in a wrong way?
Stella Chen: No, not at all. I had a really great time on this jury, everyone was so wonderful. it really hit me that all the things that I say to my students when I'm helping them prepare about competitions is so true. The jury really doesn't care if you make a mistake. They're really out to just enjoy the wonderful level of creativity and musicianship there is. And that really shines through. When the performer is generous and exuberant, but also, I think, authentic, that really means a lot more to everyone than I expected. It's always meant the most to me, but really it shows right through to everyone. And that was really heartening, actually. So it was just a great experience.
WFIMC: Do you tell your students at Juilliard to do competitions?
Stella Chen: I don't have my own studio yet- I teach as an assistant to Li Lin at Juilliard. Those students tend to be motivated and they come to me for help preparing for competitions, but I don't tell anyone to do competitions. But personally, I think it's always a great experience for people at a certain level. It's wonderful performance experience. Yes, I would encourage it for people who are ready- both mentally and technically speaking.
WFIMC: We do talk to many competitions now about not just giving a monetary awards, but we're really trying to help people get their careers going. In your case, you had quite a few things set up beforehand, and you were already very, very far. But I wonder what did the Queen Elizabeth Competition do for you, now that you look back after four years: did it really make a difference?
Stella Chen: It made a huge difference for a couple of reasons. I actually wasn't set up. I wasn't set up at all. It was a giant surprise. I always believed in my musicianship, but I did not know what to do other than to just keep honing my craft and my art. So it was a big step. And then I was suddenly launched onto a big tour, and I subsequently got the Lincoln Center Emerging Artist Award and the Avery Fisher Award shortly, which all helped. But then the pandemic started and everything shut down for everyone. It's not been easy for anyone by any means, but I think I learned a lot, and a lot of that is also having confidence in what I have to offer, which is very different from what everyone else has to offer.
WFIMC: You are saying you were not set up, but you had to deal with quite a lot of challenges after the Queen Elisabeth.
Stella Chen: I have to tell you that, as I told you, I had no expectations of winning anything. And so then apparently, I have no memory of this, but when we signed up for the repertoire for the competition, we also had to list a second concerto to perform. I don't remember doing this, but I wrote Beethoven. It's insane, right? It's a bit insane. I remember one of the first concerts was like- four days after the competition. So there I was- playing Beethoven concerto, on a newly received Strad, which I had also forgotten was part of the first prize. I was like: “Oh, okay, let me play the most perfect concerto in the world with a new Golden Age Strad!” So that was really something else. What a spectacular challenge! And it was really just four days after the competition.
American violinist Stella Chen garnered worldwide attention with her first-prize win at the 2019 Queen Elizabeth International Violin Competition. Since then, Stella has performed with orchestras such as the New York Philharmonic, Chicago Symphony, Minnesota Orchestra, Israel Philharmonic, Chamber Orchestra of Europe and in venues such as Carnegie Hall, Vienna Musikverein and Berlin Philharmonie. She appears frequently with Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center.
Stella plays the 1700 ex-Petri Stradivarius, on generous loan from Dr. Ryuji Ueno and Rare Violins in Consortium, Artists and Benefactors Collaborative; and the 1708 Huggins Stradivarius, courtesy of the Nippon Foundation.