Chen Liang-Sheng

Little Ambition, But Lots of Confidence

They look like a football team doing their warm-up calisthenics. One--the hands go down, two--they move together, three--out to the sides, and four--back up to the top, over and over again. Fifteen people in a classroom imitating the motions of conductor Chen Liang-Sheng.

And the imitation is not even close to perfect. Even in this simple beat pattern, the most basic part of a conductor's technique, Chen's movements reveal a grace and depth of concentration that make his students' hands appear tense and stubby by comparison.

Repeatedly he tells them, "You must understand the weight of your arm" but they are still struggling with recalcitrant limbs, faces tense with enigmatic phrases delivered in broken but richly allusive English. To help their hands go down slowly and evenly, he wants them to "Think of vertebrae going up," and to bring a sense of calm to their motions he suggests that at the end of each four beats "the will must be completely out." Intrigued by his half-sentences and mesmerized by his sinewy movements, the class seems to take on some of Chen's relaxation and command.

Chen is a small man, with the slight wiry build of a teen-aged boy. His face is animated and supple, often scrunching into a hundred creases to accommodate a large smile. He dresses simply, favoring the kind of baggy shirts that permit his arms to move freely.

He didn't become a conductor in the usual way, with school orchestras and competitions. In fact he didn't begin to study music until he was 19, an age when most musicians are ready to launch their careers.


Born in 1933 in Shanghai, Chen grew up under the Japanese occupation of China, a frantic time unconducive to musical studies. After his family emigrated to the U.S. to flee the Chinese revolution, he began to study music at Berkeley. He got a masters in composition at Princeton, then waited on table in New York for three years. So it wasn't until ten years ago, at the age of thirty-two that Chen began to study conducting at the Geneva Conservatory. "I stayed two years in the class and when I finished I still didn't know how to conduct. I was still beating time."

It wasn't until three years later that Chen really learned how to conduct, and then the knowledge came almost by accident. "I always felt wrong even though they might be singing right, and then one day, by mistake, I did something that was right."

Since that time, Chen has developed into a conductor of remarkable technical control. His cues are precise and his musical directions clear and comprehensible. But Chen doesn't concern himself with technique because it is now so deeply a part of him as to be forgotten. "I don't think of gestures anymore. I look at a phrase. I immediately hear what it should be and the hand is that way."

The disdain for mere mechanics carries over into his expectations for groups that work under him, including amateur groups like the Summer School Chorus, which he is conducting this year. Most choral conductors spend a lot of time going over the music slowly until each section has learned its notes. Only then do they begin to work on musical values. But Chen takes the music up to tempo from the very first. "If I let everyone carefully study their notes, when I want to go fast, they won't be able to go fast any more." He fears that his singers will get lost in minutae and obscure the larger shapes that he is trying to create. So he goes for the large gestures and expects his singers to pick up the notes somewhere along the way. "It's like a pickpocket school. They have these models running around at their normal speed and you have to pick things up. More and more by doing it you get the speed, so the speed ceases to be a thing that bothers you."

Part of Chen's lack of concern with technique stems from his never having studied an instrument. He has picked up enough piano to get around the keys, but he has never confronted problems of producing sounds on particular instruments. So when he wants a certain musical effect, he he won't take technical limitations as an excuse. "If you have a battle to fight and you need your reinforcements at such and such a date and such place, you can't say 'Well, because we don't have the trucks necessary we can't be there.' You plan it so that even if you have to walk you get there."

A professional conductor for only ten years. Chen has risen very fast in stature. He is an charge of musical activities at the University of Geneva and, in recent years, has performed and recorded with the Suisse-Romande Orchestra, one of the better symphonies in the world. Yet he has remarkable little ambition. A contented fatalism informs his attitude toward his own career. He seems sincerely unconcerned with struggling upward in the profession or competing for the prestigious jobs. "I have never worried how I look. When I make a record, the first condition is you don't put my picture on the cover. I think it's bad taste. Either you put the music on or the composer's picture. You have those dreamy looking performers--who are they kidding?"

Yet Chen has a strong belief in the vastness of his own powers. Underlying many of his remarks is a sense that he has not gotten all the recognition that is his due. He deeply resents Leon Kirchner, Walter Bigelow Rosen Professor of Music, whose Summer School Chamber Players have received substantial support and fanfare from the University. He maintains, "You give me not the same players, but one class lower [than the Chamber Players] and I'll make concerts musically better than that, I assure you." And while he expresses no desire to conduct the Berlin Philharmonic or an orchestra like it, he also seems confident that he could handle it if he wanted to.

His self-confidence never becomes pompous or overbearing, but it is always present. Perhaps it is an essential attribute for a successful conductor. Chen says, "I knew Ozawa when he was walking around like a bum in the New York streets. Now you look at him with all the shining things all around him. It is illusory, but it is so."

Like a political leader, a conductor must have enough confidence to sell himself--to convince other musicians of the superiority of his ideas. And while Chen is no slick political type, he has an almost evangelical belief in the aptness of his insights.

An Intriguing sense of revealed wisdom pervades Chen's conversation, partly a result of the peculiar use of language- Spoken with a heavy Chinese accent, his words usually hover on the border between the incomprehensible and the profoundly suggestive. But as with the sage-like Stein in Conrad's Lord Jim, the half finished phrases, the almost aphoristic quality of his sentences, lend a mysterious weight to all he says.