Sandra Wright Shen.jpg

BY Iride Aparicio

Photos Courtesy: The Steinway Society

SILICON VALLEY, CA-- The night of April 9, during  her Classical piano concert,  live and streamed, sponsored  by the Steinway Society the Bay Area at Valley Christian High School in San José, California,   "pianist of the first order" Sandra Wright-Shen, born in Taiwan but  considered "A Bay Area  treasure artist, " in Silicon Valley,  presented a unique concert of  mostly  Piano Variations, in which she demonstrated to her audience not only her ability as a public speaker, but her excellence as a performer, by interpreting masterfully, every musical nuance in each one of her many Variations.

Dressed formally, in a white  long gown and  black  velvet coat, the international star who is currently serving as a piano faculty  at  the San Francisco Conservatory of Music  Pre-College Division and at  the Masterworks Music Festival,  addressed her audience, (which included young students) by  first, describing the meaning of the noun Variations in music, followed by a short explanation on what each Variation do to a musical Theme.

"Today,"  she told her audience speaking from the stage,  " I am going to start the program with "Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star" which is a song you all know," After that, she went on to explain to them that the two-part song (which includes 40 notes in total) had nothing to do with a star, but is actually  "Ah, vous dirai-je Maman, a French folk comic children's song, whose name may be translated as: "If I could tell you my secret, Mama" and "The secret" of the boy supposed to be his conviction that candies are more important than reasoning for him.

 Austrian composer Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, (l786-1791) who often used folk songs as themes for his classical pieces, used this particular one ( in the year l700) for his 12 Variations on K.265, and first played it in a Vienna recital, when he was 25 years old to display his gift for improvisation to his audience. Variations on K. 265, are still now considered today as a technical virtuosity of musical invention.

 And starting her concert with "Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star," a song that most people are familiar with, teacher Sandra Wright-Shen gave all her Concert's listeners, an opportunity to learn something about Variations, because most were able to recognize the "Theme," (the name given in music to the melody which is going to be altered in each Variation). When she first played it, just the notes of the melody) all recognized the Theme, so as it changed, many were also able to detect the changes by listening carefully. As a result, some could detect when notes were added to the Theme, or subtracted from it, when its rhythm was changed, when the music was transposed to a different key, or it melody ornamented by arpeggios. On that night, for many, specially students, just listening to how pianist Wright-Shen changed the sound of the melody they have known as Twinkle, Twinkle, little Star, may have taught them what a music Variation is, and how the composers create them.

Beethoven's 15 Variations and Fugue in E-flat Major, Op 15 "Eroica"
As introduction to this piece, Wright-Shen tells her audience that most of the music that she will be playing in this concert came to their composers at a time when they were suffering, and that these Variations came to Ludwig Van Beethoven (l770-1827) not only before his famous symphony by the same name, but at the time when he became aware that he was going deaf. The may have been the reason why he started his variations's theme (taken from the creatures of his Prometheus Ballet) with the bass line (he could still hear) with a note which repeats.  She invites her audience to listen to that note and observe what Beethoven does with that note. She also mentions to observe carefully the time when the variations, and the Prometheus Theme meet, with the theme of the Fugue and both are played together.

After she describes the structure of this particular set of Variations, those knowledgeable in composition can easily follow each variation, because the mastery of the pianist and the clarity of each note sound makes it possible for us to detect the emphasis at the beginning of each variation, and follow each one, from beginning to end.


The second part of her concert started with  Variations for the Healing of Arinushka (1977), a piece written  by Estonian composer Arvo Pärt (Born in 1935) The Variations were composed with a purpose, which was to help his daughter Ariina recuperate from an operation and heal. The piece employs tintinnabuli, which is a composition's technique  invented by the composer, which allows the pianist to  imitate, at the piano the ringing of bells, without using the pedal. In Wright-Shen's, explanation of this piece's music, which is esoteric in sound, and contains elements from the Gregorian chant: monophonic in texture, no harmony, free flowing, and no Rhythm, we learn that each variation, in these piece is meant to represent (in sound and in its structure) the steps in the natural progression of a healing,

Pianist Wright-Shen's verbal story of  her second piece in the second part of her concert: Clara Schumann (1819-1896) Variations on a theme of Robert Schumann, Op. 20 (1853) was very interesting. She said that the variations were written by Schumann's wife (who was also a musician) as a birthday gift to her husband, and based on one of her husband's compositions. Clara starts her Variations piece with a verbatim restatement of Robert's piece (as a theme) and then moves the theme to the treble clef and begins changing it rhythm, by using staccato, and 16ths triplets in the right hand in one of the variations,  thus demonstrating her own virtuosity as a pianist. She then continue changing each variation by adding chords, arpeggios, a harmonizing canon, and at the end doing a unique variation so symmetrically constructed, that the melody will sound identical, whether the piece is played from beginning to the end, or from the end to the beginning.  Pianist Wright-Shen managed not only to demonstrate to her audience her complete control of her instrument, but her understanding and mastery of the difficult piece.

The jazzy  Excursions for Piano, Op. 2- Movements III and IV (1945) the first published solo piano Piece by American Composer Samuel Barber (l910-l981) in a classical concert, brought contrast to her concert. The regional American folk idioms of the piece contrasted drastically  with the other pieces in the concert. For the pianist, this piece is rhythmically demanding. It was well interpreted.

But according to Cultural World Bilingual's assessment of her recital, where Sandra Wright-Shen excelled on that night, was in her interpretation of Franz Liszt (l811-l886)  Paganini Etudes, No. 6 in A Minor (l838; rev 1851).  The piece, was written to daunt even the most accomplished pianists, because it requires rapid octaves, scales, spans, arpeggios, to name a few, and test not only the pianist velocity in execution, but his or her accuracy in sound. The piece is considered "difficult" even for seasoned concert pianists because it demands the most technical skills of the pianists repertoire. Sandra Wright-Shen mastered it.