Violinist Stella Chen Produces ‘Interesting’ Sound on Stunning Debut Album ‘Stella X Schubert’

A sense of enthusiasm can be heard throughout Chen’s supremely confident debut with pianist Henry Kramer

By Laurence Vittes | From the May-June 2023 issue of Strings magazine

“I fell in love with the sound of the violin after hearing a young girl play it in a performance,” violinist Stella Chen, 31, says. “My mom asked the girl who her teacher was, and the answer was Li Lin, a passionate young violinist, unknown at the time, but now a widely respected pedagogue. From him, I learned the basic fundamentals of how to play the violin and so much more. I have never met someone with such an insatiable hunger for learning and an almost fanatic dedication to excellence.”

“Something that has become part of my DNA,” she says of her lessons with Lin, is to “produce an interesting sound at all times.” Judging from her debut album, Chen learned that lesson well. But she was no mere child prodigy when she first picked up the violin at age seven. Growing up in Silicon Valley, Chen was instilled with a strong appreciation for education, especially in STEM (science, technology, engineering, mathmatics) areas. “Instead of playing chamber music and in the youth orchestra, I spent my free time participating in my school’s Science Olympiad team,” she says. “Playing the violin was definitely my personal haven, my little escape, and respite from the academic pressures of the time. And Sieun Lin, a fabulous cellist, cello teacher, and wife of Li Lin, was an invaluable source of inspiration to me. 

“She made music synonymous with fun.”

That sense of enthusiasm can be heard throughout Chen’s supremely confident debut with pianist Henry Kramer, Stella x Schubert (Platoon), as evidenced when Chen deftly navigates the thorny passages of Schubert’s challenging Fantasie in C major, D. 934: II, Allegretto. The program is rounded out by Schubert’s Rondo in B minor, D. 895; Sei mir gegrüsst, D. 741; and the strikingly beautiful Ständchen, D. 920.

In the years since the violin first caught her ear, Chen has excelled as the Grand Prize Winner of the 2019 Queen Elisabeth International Violin Competition, the youngest person to ever win a prize at the Menuhin Competition, and a recipient of both a 2020 Avery Fisher Career Grant and 2020 Lincoln Center Emerging Artist Award. She is the inaugural recipient of the Robert Levin Award from Harvard University. Her mentors have included Levin, Donald Weilerstein, Itzhak Perlman, Miriam Fried, and Catherine Cho. She serves as teaching assistant at the Juilliard School, where she received her doctorate, to Li Lin. Chen plays the 1700 “ex-Petri” Stradivari and the 1708 “Huggins” Stradivari. 

Strings asked Chen about her career and her love of Schubert.

Stella x Schubert, Stella Chen, (Platoon)

What would you like readers to know about you, this album, and your artistry?

I find that thinking about and working on Schubert’s music is my safe space, my own little haven. When my mind is racing, life is overwhelming, and the anxieties and mundanities of everyday life become too loud, I turn to Schubert’s music, and it transports me to another place. It’s such a privilege to have this music in our world, which is so fast paced, so relentless. And I hope that people will take a moment to open their hearts and be vulnerable with this music. 


You have said your own love for Schubert blossomed suddenly during a performance analysis class with Robert Levin. What was it about the music and that performance in particular that made such a big impression?

I learned the Schubert G major quartet with Robert Levin at Harvard, and every coaching had me in tears at one point or another. The music is earth-shattering. The way that Schubert brings us from the sublime paradise to utter terror and back within the blink of an eye is truly unbelievable. Professor Levin has a unique way with words and with music that moved me deeply and changed me for life, and my love and reverence for Schubert continues to grow every day.

Tell me more about Levin’s influence on your understanding of composition.

Leaving aside the details of what I learned from him about the construction of individual pieces, here is how I would characterize his impact generally. I did not grow up with the idea that scholarship and a performer’s intuition necessarily coexisted easily in a single person. Robert was the first person I met who seamlessly integrates them. It’s easy to box oneself into one category or the other: sometimes I would read an analysis and, despite learning useful information about how the piece is put together, I might then forget to attend to the details that make music magical in the moment. But with his example of how these mental habits can live together, it was easier to gain perspective on other ways I had let certain misconceptions limit my thinking: we can so easily become obsessed with “perfecting” a technically difficult passage on the instrument, but in the end, all is in service of crafting a personal interpretation of the music. All input, whether instinctual or intellectual, is valuable. The way that Robert exudes enthusiasm and flits so seamlessly between roles is endlessly inspiring. I have learned so much from him as a generous person, scholar, teacher, and performer. 

Stella Chen Performs Paganini and Vieuxtemps | Strings Sessions

For those who may not be intimate with Schubert’s string works, how would you describe his chamber music?

There’s great variation between Schubert’s string works, but from the smallest sonatina to the massive [1828] Fantasie, all have the unmistakable stunning Schubertian melodies. Some are dramatic, cathartic experiences, others are delightful little gems. One thing remains in common: Schubert has no regard for how comfortable or possible something may be to execute on the instrument. He asks for a command over the instrument that many may not have. In fact, the difficulty of the Fantasie played a significant role in the disastrous premiere. 

The Fantasie, which you note was shunned for decades after Schubert’s death, is quite a workout. What is the key to mastering it?

There is no mastering of this piece—it will be a lifelong relationship and journey that I feel so blessed to have. 


What technique is required to approach music of this magnitude?

The opening of the Fantasie is notorious among musicians. The pianist must play the quietest of tremolos—but in fact, measured—while the violinist emerges out of nothing with the most vulnerable and tender long note. The joke is that the nervous pianist will play nothing but a chord and the violinist’s bow will start trembling, reversing roles. It’s hard to describe the command over technique that is required to play music like this—it’s not explicitly virtuosic techniques that are being demanded, but rather, such confident and subtle control that one doesn’t need to think about anything other than the music. The mental focus needed is also daunting. 

What drew you to these four works in particular?

There’s been no doubt in my mind that presented with the opportunity, the Schubert Fantasie would have to be the feature on my debut album. It’s my single favorite work—our relationship only deepened after I brought it to the Queen Elisabeth competition—and I ended up writing my dissertation on the work as well. For me, no composer conceives of more beautiful melodies than Schubert, and this quality is in full display in all four of these works. 

Why did they fit together so well?


The B-minor Rondo was the best received of Schubert’s duos for violin and piano; the Fantasie the worst. I thought it only natural to include Sei mir gegrüsst, the song that Schubert adapted to become the theme for the theme and variations that feature in the second half of the Fantasie, one of Schubert’s least well-known songs, and Ständchen, perhaps the best known song, seemed an organic pairing. 

You have commented on the otherworldly nature of Schubert’s music. How do you prepare to capture that quality?

The shiver-inducing quality of Schubert’s music has baffled and captivated performers since its writing. Every happiness seems tinged with sadness and vice versa. I imagine that Schubert’s long health struggles had him teetering on the brink of life and death, just as his music does. Perhaps he saw things that most of us don’t—the power that his music holds is irreplicable and potent. The way that Schubert is able to convey vulnerability through his music is exquisite and one of the key factors in a compelling Schubert performance, and that’s something I work on both as a person and as a musician. 

I fell in love with the violin because of the beauty of its tone, and I do seek to find that beauty every time I touch the violin, which is a significant part of my connection to Schubert, the master of lieder. The honesty, vulnerability, exquisite beauty, without ever becoming sentimental. True magic. 

What advice do you offer those that are planning to play Schubert?

Enjoy. Marvel in the courage and genius of the music, listen to the quiet musical voice inside your heart, and guide your hands to find that beauty.