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Review: Can Chelsea Chen save the organ?

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It looks as though Chelsea Chen, a chirpy, Bible-totting 24-year-from San Diego who gave a stunning recital at Walt Disney Concert Hall on Sunday night, may be just what the organ world needs.

The organ is king, and fancy instruments are being built or restored, left and right. But finding audiences is another matter. Disney’s organ remains a draw, but it is the exception. The first recital on the fine, expensive new organ at the Renee and Henry Segerstrom Concert Hall in Orange County last month was not a full house, despite all the hoopla about the instrument and the appearance of France’s most notable player, Olivier Latry.

Simply put, we have no star. And Chen, with a little time to cosmopolitanize (if that’s a word), could be it. Her inspirational, goody-goody side can be a bit trying. But she is a wonderful, self-assured player with a fine technique and a rare musicality.

She is also a composer. Her arrangements of six Chinese folksongs, ‘Taiwan Tableaux,’ is happy music, an irresistible riot of bright hues with just enough charm and good cheer to keep it kitsch-free. She plays French music (Dupre and Vierne) with lovely lyrical grandeur.

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But it was in her ability to make forbidding German organ music utterly engaging that Chen really stands out. On Sunday, Hindemith’s gray Organ Sonata No. 1 became not gray but kaleidoscopically colored and character-filled. A Chorale-fantasy by Max Reger, a musical invocation of Psalm 146 (which Chen clumsily read from a Bible she kept on her console), was a fabulous rush of mad passion but never at the expense of eye-popping contrapuntal clarity. (She played to an audience that filled about two-thirds of Disney Hall.)

All organists, of course, are power-trippers. And though all smiles, Chen bulks up and raises the volume and rattles the seats with the mightiest of them. But not all organists have her delicacy as well, her ability to paint a line with a poetic brush stroke before -- or after -- she lets rip.

-- Mark Swed


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