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About this Piece


In her recital titled “Visions of Joy,” Chelsea Chen is showcasing examples of uplifting music, including her own composition The Moon Lady (2011) and the West Coast premiere of Arise (2019) by Australian-Canadian composer Julian Revie. Apart from a transcription of the “Venus” movement from Gustav Holst’s familiar The Planets, her program centers on French composers from the late 19th and early 20th centuries.

Requiring strenuous virtuosity, Maurice Duruflé’s homage to the composer/organist Jehan Alain (1911–1940), Prélude et Fugue sur le nom d’Alain, Opus 7, cryptically uses a musical cipher to spell out Alain’s name. Equally challenging in depth and technique is a transcription of the finale to Camille Saint-Saëns’ “Organ Symphony.” Completing the program are transcriptions of Claude Debussy’s Petite Suite and Oliver Messiaen’s “Transports de joie.” —Gregg Wager

Visions, Stories, and Symbols of Joy

Notes by Gregg Wager

To emphasize uplifting music, organist Chelsea Chen confidently introduces the elusive idea of artistic vision with her recital “Visions of Joy.” The music itself by mostly French composers clearly emotes joy, but the title of her program also suggests expressions of her own joy and how the pipe organ facilitates that.

With her own composition and the West Coast premiere of another, she reminds us above all of the joy of creating new music. In choosing carefully from recent styles, her originality prevails while also showcasing a superb technique.  

After completing an ambitious four-movement work for orchestra titled L’ascension, Oliver Messiaen (1908–1992) felt almost immediately a need to transcribe it for organ. All but one of the movements easily made this transition, but the third of the four did not. To remedy this, he composed a new movement titled “Transports de joie d’une âme devant la gloire du Christ qui est la sienne.” (“Transports of joy of a soul before the glory of Christ which is his.”)

Like fireworks, the music at times resembles pulsating outbursts that depict moments of joy. Between these, parallel-chord phrases alternate with sweeping scalar passages, eventually reposing on a final cadence in F-sharp major.

While still a young man, Claude Debussy (1862–1918) took three years to prepare his Petite Suite for piano, four hands, for his publisher. It would be relatively light music, with each of the two pianists whimsically trading off melodies.

The first two of its four movements, based on Symbolist poetry by Paul Verlaine (1844–1896), are titled “En bateau” (“On a boat”) and “Cortège” (“Procession”), while the remaining Menuet and Ballet movements only hint at the genres their titles suggest. The tempos for the outer movements are Andantino and Allegro giusto, while both inner movements are Moderato.

Since it was first published, this Suite has been orchestrated and transcribed several times, often leaving behind the original novel character of piano four hands but revealing a new character that proves just as satisfying as the original. Organist Léon Roques (1839–1923) transcribed the version heard here, which was published in 1906.

It is said that what matters is not the story but the way you tell it. Chelsea Chen (b. 1983) composed The Moon Lady (2011) for what seemed to be at the time purely didactic reasons: subtitled “Organ Demonstrator 44” by her publisher Wayne Leupold, part of a series specified for “educational use.”

Some may recognize this traditional Chinese myth from last year’s Oscar contender for animated feature, Over the Moon. With Chen herself narrating the story, six parts each correspond to a registration of the organ as follows: “Introduction” (Flutes); “Hou Yi and Peng Meng” (Reeds); “Elixir” (High Principals and Mixture; Strings); “Chang-e Rising” (Lower Principals); “Hou Yi Chasing the Moon” (Principals and Flutes; Reeds and Strings); and “Hou Yi Visiting Chang-e” (Mixtures and Reeds).

Maurice Duruflé (1902–1986) chose to mourn the sudden death of organist and composer Jehan Alain (1911–1940) by composing his Prélude et Fugue sur le nom d’Alain, Opus 7. Borrowing an alphabet-to-musical-pitch cypher from a piece by Ravel, the musical material spells out the name “ALAIN” as “A–D–A–A–F” or a D-minor triad. 

In the subtle confusion of a peripatetic triple meter, a lyrical theme provides a countermelody to a melody borrowed from Alain’s Litanies. As the prelude winds down, the fugue takes over, beginning ponderously but gradually turning up the energy level to an ecstatic overdrive. 

Australian-Canadian Julian Revie (b. 1979) studied biochemistry and molecular biophysics before hearing the call to study music composition. A certain environmental sensibility combines with his other interests to create Arise, which Chen premiered in 2019 and presents tonight in its West Coast premiere.

The first of two sources of material for Arise derives from the actual genetic code from a DNA sample of the Kauai O’o, a Hawaiian bird that became extinct in 1987. The second source depicts this exotic bird’s actual mating song as captured on a vintage recording, which Revie uses as a source to compose music with.