Pianist Sa Chen brings her artistry to the U.S. 

A musical revolution to the tune of 150 million students is happening in China, and pianist Sa Chen is at the forefront of it all.

Although her name and face have been known throughout her country for two decades, Chen, 36, is virtually unknown in North America. Her career, like the rest of her country, is catching up quickly and turning heads.

“Everything happens with the right timing. China, of course, is a very big country, so when things happen, they’re usually going to be quite big as well. When I first started taking piano lessons, few people in China were interested. Today, millions adore piano playing and the violin,” says Chen, who makes her debut with the San Francisco Symphony this week at Davies Symphony Hall with guest conductor Vasily Petrenko. The program includes Rachmaninoff’s Piano Concerto No. 2 in C minor, Samuel Barber’s Overture to “The School for Scandal” and Dmitri Shostakovich’s Symphony No. 12, “The Year 1917.”

The daughter of a ballet dancer and a French horn player, Chen describes the importance of the arts education she received: “We don’t have to have it, but culture is the spirit and soul of a country, and music is more than that. When you have a large, cultured population, you see the world in a very different way.”

As do young, gifted children who are put on the fast track to win athletic medals, Chen received assistance from the Chinese government, which furthered her chances to succeed at international piano competitions. Her classmate Yundi Li became the youngest winner in the history of the Chopin competition in Warsaw.

“Yundi and I were financially supported by the government to move with our teacher to Shenzhen, close to Hong Kong. Consistency was demanded, and we received many other benefits from the government’s support of arts development there,” she says.

She comments on the intense rivalry between fellow Chinese pianists Yundi and Lang Lang, both 32: “They’re promoted equally well by marketing, record companies and PR companies. They were almost forced into a kind of rivalry. Personally, between them, I’m sure if they were to sit down for drinks, they’d find that it’s actually not that complicated. It’s just unfortunate.”

Meanwhile, she’s pleased to be performing Rachmaninoff’s beloved Piano Concerto No. 2. “I’ve lived with this work since I was 15,” she says. “Some people criticize the music of Rachmaninoff, but nothing is everything, you know? To me, there is the call of destiny in this concerto. The wave and power of the ocean is in this beautiful music.”

IF YOU GO

Sa Chen

Presented by San Francisco Symphony

Where: Davies Symphony Hall, 301 Van Ness Ave., S.F.

When: 2 p.m. April 23, 8 p.m. April 24

Tickets: $36 to $151

Contact: (415) 864-6000, www.sfsymphony.org

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Elijah Ho

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