We nicknamed him Gigamesh (real name: Giorgi Gigashvili) because every single one of his performances sought out the epic and had the world-historical intensity of music being heard for the first time (you are forgiven if the nod in the direction of The Epic of Gilgamesh – the oldest surviving written story – wasn’t immediately obvious). Gigamesh didn’t take a single note off, kept his foot on the gas with every subtle pedaling nuance, began each phrase in Promethean pronouncement, and ended each with a stretch towards infinity. The struggle was always real with Gigamesh on stage; the sound of seeming impossibility was the point. A fellow piano-nerd and Brilliant Musicology Dropout friend was my viewing partner for the 2023 Rubinstein Master Piano Competition and we agreed that Gigamesh was destined for gold. But Gigamesh only managed silver; the gold medal went to Kevin Chen, a slight, seemingly unassuming and definitely cool, composed 18 year-old from Calgary.
If Gigamesh was your musico-romantic partner, you’d always be wondering if he was about to harm himself, about to drive off a cliff, about to provide shocking new forms of pleasure that made you wonder what kind of mess-making went into the production of his bliss. If Chen was your partner, he’d consistently provide a location both understated and luxuriously furnished, a place where you might enjoy your own thoughts, where you might forget the near-superhuman modeling of minutiae required to make such easeful experience possible. With Chen attending to you, your needs would be effortlessly sensed and – miraculously – met without generating the anxiety of anticipation. Togetherness with Chen would feel easy, irresistible, obvious. Togetherness with Gigamesh would be a relentless process of exhilarating survival, exhausting and addictive (give a few moments of this chamber performance a chance). Gigamesh: a limitless supply of cocaine that might always lead to waking up with a dragon tattoo on your genitals and a commitment to fund a revolution somewhere in South America. Chen: a perfectly dosed THC edible generating pulsating euphoria and golden illuminations without any hangover. Before heading to hear Chen perform in Parry Sound, Ontario this Summer, I figured I was a dedicated Gigamesh Guy. Now I’m not so sure.
I went into the concert blind (no idea what the program would be) and this was a brilliant, pat-yourself-on-the-back move; highly recommended as a general practice and particularly wonderful if you’ve overdosed on the repertoire over the years. I was shocked when Chen opened his recital with what sounded like Haendel and quite obviously became Bach as a lilting overture was followed by a Couldn’t-Be-Anybody-But-The-Man fugue. I was mesmerized when we moved straight into Chopin’s 4th Ballade in a rendition that was more dance-like (without being predictable) than any I have heard (and I have heard too many to count). And I was thrilled when we transitioned seamlessly into Skryabin’s 7th Sonata.
I was further shocked when, after hearing the Skryabin, it became clear that this recital wasn’t only an outrageous display of contrasts in style, of outrageous pianistic fluidity; it was also a goddamn masterclass in programming. Never before had I heard the Chopin 4th Ballade so smoothly linked to the past and the future, the 10-second passage of counterpoint resonating backwards into Bach and the swirl preceding the coda so obviously paving the way for Skryabin’s swirly stylings. Here I might be verging on the insufferably pretentious, but I swear to God that the temporality of the recital was stretched out both in the immediate sense (the actual pieces leaked back and forth into each other) and in the more abstract historical-awareness sense: without any artificial enhancements (no cocaine, no weed, I swear!), I felt like I was hearing the opening three pieces, as well as the (classical) musical 18th,19th and 20th centuries simultaneously delineated and integrated; just a fugue then a romantic wave then a slightly wild swirl. Music History baby – easy peasy!
There was more to the recital – a casually perfect performance of Liszt’s Norma Variations that felt like junk food after such fine, well-selected opening fare, a piece Chen wrote himself which was incredibly successful (some sort of post-Debussy/Granados throwback that never for a moment sounded like it didn’t deserve to sit right at the heart of the recital), and, crucially, the lack of an intermission during 80 minutes of musical glory that no doubt tested the bladders of a senior-citizen-heavy audience – but what, apart from the programming brilliance, stuck with me was Chen’s capacity to snap-swerve out of cooly controlled exposition into monstrous, violent gigantism: in the buildup to the coda of the 4th Ballade, in the recurring sonic tsunamis of the Skryabin 7th Sonata, in the relentless, fatalistic grandeur of Isolde’s Liebestod. Which meant that we were always either recovering from an overwhelming surge or anticipating the next blast of excess. And yet, Chen’s aura of ease – both in physique and demeanor – held and soothed us as he moved through it all. Which makes it likely that the metaphorical delegation of musical drugs I suggested in the opening isn’t quite right; Freud pioneered the use of cocaine as a numbing agent for surgery. He also, famously, wrote some of his most inspired papers late at night while ripped on the drug. Cocaine is both powerful anesthetic and powerful stimulant. And so is Kevin Chen at the piano.
His pianism is as godlike as anybody playing today, a cocktail of ease and enjoyment and curiosity that goes down more smoothly than anybody I’ve heard in a long, long time. Consider one passage: the infamous run of octaves that leads into the Tchaikovsky Concerto’s syrupy 3rd movement climax, a passage that (so the legend goes) blew the roof off of Carnegie Hall when Vladimir Horowitz performed it with Toscanini a million years ago. After hearing Chen’s live performance in the Rubinstein Competition’s Final Round, I cued it up for a less-piano-nerdy friend. His reaction was “that’s crazy technique, no?”. Answer: yes. Crazy technique indeed: as powerful and savage and No-Regard-For-Human-Life-ish as Horowitz, as majestic and robust as Gilels, as hyped-up and slick as Argerich. Please give all three of those hyperlinks a spin (and focus only on the 15-20 second passage of piano smashing) before listening to Kevin crush it; he teases us with surprisingly slow, singing opening octaves, quickly transitions into full-blown massive-speed-smash pounding on the way up, then throws in road-runner jackhammer articulation on the way down before adding the compulsory wrong-note-or-two in the final leaps to finish the job (all the cool kids miss at least one note there) and BOOM motherfuckers: Horowitz, Gilels and Argerich distilled and served stirred, not shaken, on ice. Chen’s playing is always coolly coked up.
The problem with Cocaine Kevin Chen is that we have a cultural difficulty embracing ease and what he does reeks of Capital-E Ease. Gigamesh-The-Hard-Struggle-Piano-Drug redeems hopeless striving through the consolations of his heroic survival and overcoming; there is nothing heroic about Kevin Chen’s playing – nothing is being overcome. It’s probably easier for Kevin to prepare monumentally difficult, complex programs of piano music than it is for some of us to cook breakfast or to cut the grass (let alone play a Chopin Ballade without strain). We might resent this ease and dismiss his playing as lacking in heroism, as verging on the pedestrian; the lack of Sisyphean struggle could provide an excuse for remaining defensively unmoved.
But we might, on the other hand, try casting some generous skepticism in the direction of our envy, we might see what it feels like to give marvelling at him a chance. In time, we might come to identify with the fluidity of his playing and allow ourselves to be swept away in the process. Psychoanalyst Donald Winnicott once wrote that “boiling an egg can be as creative an act as the composition of a symphony” and we too often humiliate ourselves out of the available pleasures in our lives because they aren’t sanctioned as Great, Heroic Achievements. Kevin Chen invites us to enjoy brilliance, beauty and excitement without struggle. His playing invites us to wonder if Struggle in the Search for Great Art isn’t, perhaps, a humiliating ideal to be moving on from.