One Musician Makes a Difference!
Photo-Courtesy of Chao Feng
An interview with Sandra Wright Shen, concert pianist.
Sandra is a “Steinway Artist”, won 1st Prize in the Hilton Head International Piano Competition and 1st Prize in the 2012 International Piano Competition of France.
BK: Sandra, you have said that your two passions in life are classical music and faith. How have you intertwined these passions?
SS: In May, 2007, I presented my first concert entitled “Inspiration From Above.” Since that time, I have played more than 300 such concerts around the world, in the United States, Canada, the United Kingdom, Germany, Switzerland, the Netherlands, Austria, Hungary, Taiwan, China, Hong Kong, Japan, Singapore, the Philippines, and other countries.
BK: What a journey you have had! Please share the origin behind this project.
SS: Years ago, as I was contemplating the road ahead of me as a young pianist, my husband Raymond wisely noted that perhaps the most suitable path for me was one that combined my two passions. In my piano studies (a Bachelors and Masters Music from the Peabody Conservatory in Baltimore), I rarely heard about the origins and inspirations of the great composers, whose music I studied. Thus began my research into their spiritual beliefs. Letters and diaries, as well as Talks with Great Composers by Arthur Abel and The Spiritual Lives of the Great Composers by Patrick Kavanaugh were great sources.
BK: How did you choose “Inspiration From Above” as the title of your unique concerts?
SS: These are words of Johannes Brahms: “…Before commencing to compose…I begin by appealing directly to my Maker and I first ask Him the three most important questions pertaining to our life here in this world—whence, wherefore, wither? [where am I from, why am I here, where am I going?]… Then I feel capable of drawing inspiration from above, as Beethoven did.”
It touches me deeply that the gift of music came from God to Bach, Beethoven, Brahms and to us.
BK: What is the format for one of your concerts?
SS: The basic idea of this evangelistic concert is novel yet simple. I share the Christian testimonies of the beloved, great composers, and in doing so, share the gospel. I further illustrate their faith by playing their music.
BK: Please share an example of your words before you perform.
SS: An example is Beethoven. Beethoven was very much God-centered and though he lives a lonely life because of his deafness, he found solace through his faith. He said, “No friend have I. I must live by myself one; but God is nearer to me than others in my art, so I will walk fearlessly with Him”. After sharing about his life and his quote, I would play Piano Sonata No. 32, Opus 111, which is Beethoven’s last sonata. I point out some of the nuances of the piece, such as the solitary and lonely person walking which then becomes two pairs of footsteps dancing as if the subject found a friend. Later, I point out the long sections of trills in the high register that sound like Heaven opening up.
BK: Tell us about your five different “Inspiration” concerts.
SS: Inspiration From Above 1. Overcoming Hardship (Bach, Mozart, Beethoven, Chopin, Liszt)
Inspiration From Above 2. Meaning of Life (Haydn, Schubert, Mendelssohn, Brahms, Handel)
Inspiration From Above 3. Eternity in our Hearts (Eternity/Love through Chinese music and literature vs. promises in the Bible.
Inspiration From Above 4. Love Never Fails (composers’ love life and faith)
Inspiration from Above 5. Joy to the World (Christmas themed, pairing with the four spiritual laws: Haydn Creation, Bolcom Serpent’s Kiss, Liszt Christmas Tree Suite of O Come, All Ye Faithful, Messiaen The Kiss of Infant Jesus, Chopin Scherzo No. 1 with a quote from Polish carol Lullay, Baby Jesus.
BK: Let’s backtrack a bit. Where did you grow up and are there any early piano experiences which shaped your approach to music?
SS: I was born and raised in Taiwan as the daughter of an American, Harold Wright, and a Taiwanese mother, Hui-Chu Lin. I began piano lessons at the age of four and lived in Taiwan until I went to college in Baltimore.
I will share two life-changing experiences from my teachers. When I was thirteen, I was invited as one of twenty students from around the world to attend a one-month masterclass in Germany. After my performance in the class, the master drew a big X on my score, threw the music on the floor, and yelled: “You know nothing about music, you don’t know what you are playing!” I was very humiliated, but that time turned out to be a great blessing of a breakthrough in music and a lesson in humility. I learned that performers are servants of music, that we must understand and then faithfully convey the deep meaning of the composer.
My piano teacher in high school introduced me to Jesus Christ, my Savior. The teacher had been greatly wronged by the dean of his university. I witnessed a great love that sustained my teacher through the hardship. He shared God’s great love for me and the gift of Jesus dying on the cross for me. I was deeply moved and full of admiration for this teacher’s beautiful life and said “Yes!, Jesus, come into my life!”
BK: Our God is the Master Orchestrator! Only He knows how many lives have been touched through the witness of your teacher!
With what thoughts would you like to conclude this interview?
SS: “The purpose of music is to glorify God!” Bach challenges the inner motives of every musician.This is a lifetime of learning, comprehension, and transformation. Even if you and I are not professional musicians, are you still eager to know the meaning of your creation and the entrustment of your life? Connect to the source of inspiration, and you can find answers tailored specifically for you!
BK: Sandra, thank you very much for sharing your life and heart in this Café Jubalatte interview!What is the best way to contact you to arrange for an “Inspiration from Above” concert?
SS: Please email me at IFA@sandrashen.com.