Spotlight: Pianist Alec Chien

A British adjudicator at a Hong Kong music competition once asked a young Alec Chien what he wanted to be when he grew up. “An architect,” he replied.

“It was the only English word I knew at the time that described a profession,” Chien said.

He is now entering his 33rd year as Allegheny professor of music and artist-in-residence, specializing as a pianist.

Pursuing a performance career was not a decision that surprised his family. The youngest of three, Chien had grown up imitating his two piano-playing older sisters with his fingers on a tabletop.

After his parents consented to also enroll Chien in piano lessons at age seven, the future professional began correcting his sisters.

“I was a brat,” he admitted.

Having moved from Hong Kong to New York City with his family at age 14 so his sisters could study at American universities, Chien progressed from Juilliard School’s pre-college program to its undergraduate school, ultimately earning his Doctoral degree in Musical Arts.

After completing his dissertation, Chien performed on tour throughout mainland China, practicing an average of nine to 10 hours per day, before returning to the United States and taking up the

Allegheny professorship he still holds today.

Chien recalls the influence of his dissertation adviser. “She saw the teacher in me,” he said.

She tipped him off to a job opening in Meadville, Pennsylvania, on the day of its application deadline. He was the last to apply but the first to be interviewed. He was later offered the position.

Since then, Chien has made a home and a name for himself in Meadville. He has raised a family in the area, and the mayor recognized him with the title of the city’s “adopted native son” in 1982.

Daughter Bethany Chien, ’14, spoke to the normalcy of her experience growing up with an award-winning father.

“I never thought of him as a pianist,” she said. “I always thought of him as my dad.”

She did remember one particular piece her father rehearsed at home as she and her sisters listened: Manuel de Falla’s “Ritual Fire Dance,” which Chien frequently performs as an encore.

“It was exciting, fun, and upbeat,” she recalled. “We would dance around the living room while he played.”

That quality of playfulness, in contrast to his storied career as an international piano competition prize winner and featured soloist in orchestras on no fewer than four continents, is one that stands out in other students’ accounts of Chien.

Will McInally, ’14, a lifetime Meadville resident, began studying piano privately with Chien at age 15.

“He’s always in a good mood,” he said. “He’s always excited and he’s really modest.”

Another piano student, Ashley Payseure, ’13, noted that Chien’s reputation for affectionately teasing his students does not lessen his seriousness in teaching music.

“Don’t call [piano music] songs,” she warned. “If you call them songs, he threatens to make you sing them.”

According to McInally, another of Chien’s defining characteristics is his exuberant performance style.

“He’s incredibly technically skilled but sometimes he looks like he’s losing his mind,” said McInally.

He meant, of course, to compliment Chien’s passionate musical fervor, which the pianist demonstrated to an eager audience last Saturday night at Meadville’s Academy Theatre. Chien’s performance, the third in an eight-concert series, featured major works by Franz Schubert and Frédréric Chopin.

Coattails dancing on the bench behind him, Chien played his program from memory.

He ended the night with Schubert’s “Wanderer Fantassy,” and a standing ovation called him back onstage to bow no fewer than three times.

Of the concert series, Chien said, “It is my thank you to the college and to the Meadville community for supporting me.”

However, that night, it was the audience who was thanking him.