Jeannine: Before we get started with more detailed questions, would you please introduce yourself to our readers. What is your background? What drew you to the organ?
Ms. Chen: I grew up in San Diego and started piano at the age of 4. Although my parents are not musicians, they made sure I had the best of teachers. Jane Bastien, my first piano teacher, instilled great fundamental keyboard technique and had me memorize everything. At the age of 13, I was encouraged to study the organ.
The San Diego Pipe Organ Encounter, sponsored by the American Guild of Organists, was my first introduction to the concert repertoire of the organ. Until that time, I had only heard the organ played at church. By the age of 16, I had begun studying the organ with Monte Maxwell in Annapolis, MD. He encouraged me to pursue a career as a concert organist and helped me prepare my audition for Julliard. My dream came true in August 2001 when I was accepted to study at Julliard and moved to New York City.
Jeannine: You certainly have an amazing multi-faceted music career with your work as the Artist-in-Residence at two different churches, and as a composer and performer. Let’s first look at your work as a church musician. How is your role as Artist-in-Residence at Emmanuel Presbyterian Church in NYC and Coral Ridge Presbyterian in Fort Lauderdale the same/different?
Ms. Chen: At Emmanuel Presbyterian Church in NYC I play the organ for one service each month. The music and service is traditional in nature.
At Coral Ridge Presbyterian the worship style is very contemporary for a vibrant and diverse congregation. I was contacted in 2013 by the Worship Pastor of Coral Ridge to play for the Easter 2013 service. After 6 months of dialogue, my relationship with Coral Ridge as Artist-in-Residence began. As with my position in NYC, I play one service/month but also coordinate the concert series.
However, my role at Coral Ridge is quite different. I do play a classical prelude and postlude on the organ, however, for the remainder of the service I become part of the worship band to lead the songs and traditional hymns. There are no choral anthems but instead the service is led by a fully professional worship band consisting of piano, drums, guitar, and organ. We all work from detailed charts. Playing with the Coral Ridge worship band is like playing in an excellent chamber music group. Rehearsals are intense and structured and it is our goal that worship transcends the instruments.
Few organists are practicing this nascent collaboration. I am starting to present workshops about organ/band collaboration. If you’d like to read more about integrating the organ into contemporary worship bands, I invite you to read this blog post, http://www.zachicks.com/blog/2014/1/20/how-the-organ-could-make-a-comeback-in-modern-church-music.html
Jeannine: In exploring repertoire for our upcoming organ and multi-media concert, Around the World in 80 Minutes, I recently discovered several of your compositions based on Taiwanese folk songs. You are broadening the classical organ repertoire with these solo organ compositions. Your compositional style has been described as “charming” and “irresistible.” Please describe your compositions for the organ and what makes this music unique in our vast organ repertoire.
Ms. Chen: Awarded a Fulbright Scholarship, I was able to study in Taiwan. Since my father was raised in Taiwan and I am ½ Chinese ancestry, I made it my mission to study Taiwanese folk songs and bring those songs to a new audience through my organ compositions. Wayne Leupold, www.wayneleupold.com, has published my works including, A Taiwanese Suite, Three Taiwanese Folksongs, and an organ demonstrator for high schoolers and adults based on Chinese folk tales and melodies, The Moon Lady.
Jeannine: Your performances take you throughout the world as soloist and with orchestras. What drives you to share this incredible instrument, the organ, with the audiences of the world?
Ms. Chen: I want people to experience the organ in new ways. I want the audience to connect with the organ and its myriad of sounds. For that reason, I value programs that are stylistically varied. The average audience member is usually not versed in classical music and especially in organ repertoire so I tend to create programs with a number of short pieces showing great contrast. My programs may include Bach, Durufle, Chinese folk music, a Jazz Prelude of Gershwin, or a transcription of Peer Gynt Suite. I want to make it interesting for the listener.
Jeannine: Thank you to this creative organist for sharing her story with us. To read more of Ms. Chen’s work and find her performance schedule, please visit her website at www.chelseachen.com.