Sean Chen first met the Southern California music public in 2002, when the New West Symphony tapped him as one of its "Discovery Artists," a program that paired precocious teens with the orchestra's professional players in an annual concert for general audiences.
A feature story in The Times reported that the then-13-year-old from Oak Park in Ventura County "likes to draw and build model cars but makes time to practice the piano 1 1/2 hours a day."
The practice hours have mounted since then, as Chen moved on to Oak Park High School, then the Juilliard School, and now Yale.
On Wednesday the Van Cliburn International Piano Competition, which takes place every four years, announced that Chen, 24, is one of the six finalists who'll play twice more over the coming four days for a Gold Medal that carries a $50,000 prize and various perks, including touring opportunities and a high-level artist-management deal.
The Cliburn competition was born in 1962 out of Texas pride following the home-state pianist's landmark triumph in the first International Tchaikovsky Competition in Moscow in 1958. Cliburn, who died of bone cancer at 78 in February at his Fort Worth home, became a symbol for the possibility of goodwill between the West and the communist bloc at a time when the nuclear standoff between the two sides threatened civilization itself.
This is the 14th Cliburn Competition, and Chen is trying to become the fifth American winner. He's the first American in the finals since 1997, when Jon Nakamatsu of San Jose took the Gold Medal.
Chen will play Beethoven's Piano Concerto No. 5 on Friday and Rachmaninoff's Piano Concerto No. 3 on Sunday at Bass Performance Hall, accompanied by the Fort Worth Symphony under the baton of Leonard Slatkin. All finals performances are available live, or for later download, at cliburn.org. They begin at 5:30 p.m. Thursday through Saturday and 1 p.m. Sunday (Pacific Time).
The winner, as judged by a 13-member international jury chaired by former Fort Worth Symphony music director John Giordano, will be announced at an awards ceremony Sunday at 5 p.m. Pacific.
Edward Francis, who began teaching Chen at his Thousand Oaks studio when the boy was just 7 or 8, flew to Fort Worth last weekend to root for him in person, starting with the semifinals.
Over the phone on Wednesday, Francis, an adjunct music professor at Pepperdine University and Cal State Northridge, recalled conversations with the boy's father, Eric, an insurance actuary who's based in Singapore and who may not be able to attend the competition. The father wondered early on whether it would be wise to push his son toward a career as rigorous as classical concert pianist.
"I said, 'Eric, he already plays as well as my college students. Of course we're going to encourage it.' I always marveled at the fact that even when he was very young he could do the most complicated repertoire very quickly, and understand it."
Chen has been on a roll this spring. In April, he won another prestigious competition, the American Pianists Assn. Classical Fellowship Awards in Indianapolis, and Francis said that he performed two recitals in Paris shortly before coming to Fort Worth as one of the 30 Cliburn contenders who performed 45-minute recitals in a preliminary round that began May 24.
With the field winnowed to 12 semifinalists, the second round included an hour-long solo recital and a performance with the Brentano String Quartet, resulting in Wednesday's announcement of the final six who'll duke it out in dueling concertos.
Chen’s rivals, ranging in age from 19 to 26, are two women, Fei-Fei Dong of China and Beatrice Rana of Italy, and three men, Ukrainian Vadym Kholodenko, Nikita Mndoyants of
Francis said that Chen's mother, Teri, was planning to attend the finals. He has twin brothers, four years younger, who are both electrical engineering majors at UC Berkeley. All three Chen boys were strong pianists who doubled on violin while growing up, Francis said. Their father plays the guitar, and according to the 2002 Times story, their great-grandfather, Cheng-Tin Chen, conducted an orchestra in Taiwan.
Chen earned his bachelor's and master's degrees at Juilliard and is now in an artist diploma postgraduate program at Yale, where his teacher — no relation — is Hung-Kuan Chen. Before breaking through with his first prize at Indianapolis, the Cliburn finalist had come in third at the 2013 Morocco Philharmony International Piano Competition and second at the 2011 Seoul International Music Competition.
Francis said there has been a special aura around this year's competition because of Cliburn's recent death. "They have mentioned Mr. Cliburn repeatedly, talking about his spirit being around."
He said he conferred with Chen after his semifinal performances, but "my role at this point is more as a mentor" than as a performance coach. "The preparation is done and they are artists in their own right — trying to establish their personality as a performing artist. He realizes he's been very consistent" during the competition so far.
Francis said Chen probably helped himself by showing versatility when given the chance to pick his own repertoire. "He presented the most varied programs of any of the semifinalists, which I thought was a very good decision on his part. It showed his ability to perform in a variety of styles.
"I was very moved when Sean talked in an interview about his feeling that this was more like a festival than a competition," Francis added, "a chance for friends to play together. They're quite brilliant, and all have something to say musically. It's been a blast to hear all this wonderful piano music."
After his debut with the New West Symphony in 2002, Chen returned to perform with the orchestra in '05 as part of the same youth series, then appeared as a guest artist and soloist in its regular subscription seasons in '08 and '09, said Kerrie Sadler, spokeswoman for the orchestra, which performs at the Thousand Oaks Civic Arts Plaza, Oxnard Performing Arts Center and Barnum Hall at Santa Monica High School.
Francis said that opportunities to perform with the Thousand Oaks Philharmonic, founded in 2000 to give young pianists an opportunity to perform with an orchestra, also figured in Chen's early development.
"Southern California, and California in general, has so many programs for young people that expose them to professional opportunities, and Sean has taken advantage of all of those. I think that definitely helped him to get to this level."