A Q&A with Robert Chen

To open its 2019–2020 season at Nichols Concert Hall, the Music Institute of Chicago is presenting a concert September 29 featuring CSO Concertmaster Robert Chen and Music Institute faculty pianist Matthew Hagle. The program includes Beethoven’s Sonata for Violin and Piano, Op. 12, No. 3, in celebration of the composer’s 250th birthday, along with Fauré’s Sonata No. 1 in A Major for Violin and Piano, Op. 13, and Schubert’s Rondo in B minor for Violin and Piano, D 895.

Chen shares some thoughts on his partnership with Hagle, the attraction of performing at Nichols Concert Hall, and the importance of studying music for everyone.

How did you and Matthew Hagle decide to start performing together?

At some point a few years back, I felt the desire to expand my musical activities outside the CSO. So I started to give recitals with various partners from different places. Soon it became clear that I needed to find a great pianist in the Chicago area to ease the logistics of rehearsing. Matt’s name came up as someone who fit that description. I invited him to give some recitals together last year, and we enjoyed our work together very much. He is a wonderful pianist and a very serious musician with a deep knowledge of music. I am always stimulated by his insights, and I think the partnership is a successful one. When you work as a duo, it’s a very intimate relationship involving a lot of give and take, which I like very much. There is also a vast sea of repertoire to explore outside my work with the CSO. It renews me as a musician and brings a fresh perspective when I return to the CSO.

What do you enjoy about performing at a venue like Nichols Concert Hall, which is considerably smaller than Orchestra Hall?

Nichols Concert Hall is a wonderful venue with lovely acoustics. It’s a joy performing as well as attending performances there. It’s an appropriate size for chamber music and recitals—space enough for the sound to bloom and fill the hall but also intimate enough for the performer to have contact with the audience.

Part of the program on September 29 celebrates Beethoven’s 250th birthday. Is Beethoven a composer you particularly enjoy?

Matt and I are playing Beethoven’s E flat Sonata Op. 12 No. 3. We decided when we were planning for our recital it would be nice to include Beethoven since we are celebrating his 250th birth year. Matt’s very impressive Beethoven piano sonata cycle on WFMT was also part of what brought the two of us together. My plan was to find a pianist to do the violin sonata cycle, and Beethoven is what we read together at our original meeting. We chose this one for its freshness and sparkling youthfulness. It’s a wonderful opener and it has a beautiful songful Adagio that is very typical of early Beethoven.

The Music Institute has a significant number of violin students. Do you have any advice or thoughts to share them as they study and train?

I think it’s terrific that so many kids study music. It’s an indispensable part of culture and so important to the development of one’s humanity. The modern world has so many things that vie for one’s attention and one can become extremely distracted. Studying music can be viewed as a sort of meditation. It brings a focus to develop one’s skill at listening closely and carefully. It can be a bridge that brings people together in ensemble playing. The growth of self-esteem and feelings of accomplishment from studying music is vital to anyone’s personal development. I cannot stress enough these aspect of studying music whether one ends up as a musician or pursues other walks of life.


Reserve tickets to the concert featuring Robert Chen and Matt Hagle on Sunday, September 29 at 3 pm at Nichols Concert Hall >>