By Nina Huang
Northwest Asian Weekly
It’s not everyday that Yo-Yo Ma wants to meet your family. But for Harvard student and Tanglewood Music Center (TMC) fellow Audrey Chen, that actually happened.
Taiwanese American and native of Redmond, Chen had the rare opportunity to meet and perform with Ma and the Silk Road Ensemble in China. Goofy and personable was how she described him.
The prestigious TMC is the Boston Symphony Orchestra’s summer academy for advanced musical study. Chen is also a rising senior at Harvard University.
Chen started playing the cello in the 4th grade when her older sister’s violin-playing inspired her to pick orchestra.
She’s had two teachers during her time with the cello, and they’ve been huge influences in her life. Her first teacher, Kai Chen, taught her everything she knew before she went to college. Chen’s current teacher, Lauren Lesser, has expanded her horizons in terms of how to present her music and what genres to explore. “He reminds me that using my voice is a great teaching tool for my playing, and that I should strive to get the best quality sound for every note,” she said.
Lately, Chen has been more exposed to music written by contemporary composers. Through creative music workshops, she experimented with improvisational music and has enjoyed the different opportunities to mix up her repertoire.
Chen admitted fearing the unknown about the different music genres, but has enjoyed experimentation. Chen’s proudest accomplishment is knowing that she wants to pursue music.
“It’s an accumulation of everything that I’ve done, you realize there will be ups and downs, but I know that I want to do music. It’s what I am passionate about, and I love playing and performing,” she said.
Chen explained that it’s always been a challenge for her to play at the level and quality that she wants.
“We have a lot of guidance from teachers, but it’s also finding your own personal belief of what you’re doing. It’s always been a challenge, but it’s becoming more important,” she said.
She also appreciates feedback from her peers because they aren’t afraid to be blunt. They often push her to see what she’s capable of, to go beyond what she thought she could do and not to settle for anything less than what she wants to achieve with her sounds, bracing, and colors.
“You want to find a purpose for your music, you have to work for your audiences, you have to fight for the art that you’re doing and make it convincing so that people understand that classical music is necessary for human development and the wellbeing of society,” Chen said.
Classical music makes the world a better place and Chen wants others to love it as much as she does.
Chen admires the Silk Road Ensemble because of how it incorporates arrangements from various cultures. There’s a piece that features wedding music from Damascus, Syria and there’s also a piece that commemorates a river in China.
“Their work is so extraordinary that it brings cultures together, and we need this more and more in this current political climate,” she said.
Chen’s experience playing in China with Ma has brought her closer to what it means to be Chinese and Taiwanese.
“I never really had that connection between my racial identity and classical music before, but I realized that everyone can experience music and there are things that mean more to us because of where we’re from,” she explained.
While music is her love and passion, Chen wanted to study something in math and sciences at Harvard so that she could learn technical skills. She is majoring in molecular and cell biology, and hopes to carry those concrete and problem solving skills with her beyond her musical career.
In addition, Chen is a founding member of the Boston-based Ravos Quartet that was started last year at the Taos School of Music with two violinists and one violist.
She described the experience as life changing. The group practices several times a week, motivating each other while playing music. The quartet has played at various venues in the city and they already have more gigs lined up for this semester.
Chen’s dream would be to work with Meryl Streep on something related to music and theater. At Tanglewood, one of the Boston Symphony Orchestra cellists told them in a master class that they should all take acting classes at some point in their lives.
She hopes to take classes on improvisational comedy or public speaking in her senior year before she graduates.
As Chen approaches the end of college life, her biggest challenge is deciding and understanding what it is she wants to do with her music and what kind of impact she wants to make.
“It’s coming to terms with the fact that when you go into music, you can be amazing, but that’s not enough to just be good at playing. You have to be a good person, you need to know what you want outside of the music, what kind of message you want to give, what you want to present, and what impact you want to have,” she explained.
Her future is still unclear. She could be auditioning for orchestras, touring with an ensemble, or teaching or preparing for competitions. It’s all up in the air for Chen, and that’s totally fine.
“It’s funny how much difference one month or one year can make within the trajectory of a pre-professional musician’s life, but the one constant is that I’m still playing,” she said. ■
Nina can be reached at email@example.com.