Alec Chien has a lot of explaining to do these days. As an Affiliate Artists pianist, the Pennsylvania-based musician is in Long Beach appearing at a series of "Informances," presented at schools, libraries, senior citizen centers and prisons.
"For these people, it's maybe their only chance to hear music played live, and they seem to treasure it so much," he notes. "But they have soooo many questions."
As head of the piano department at Allegheny College, Chien is used to puzzled expressions and raised hands. But nothing like this. "They'll want to know what a pitch is. But how do you explain a tone? I'll tell you; it brings you down to the essence of what you're doing.
"When I play for handicapped kids, I'll let them come up and touch the piano, so they can feel the harmonics and vibrations. They're fascinated with that--and with me, too. They discover I'm a real person. I think it's important for them to know that. It helps them to receive the music."
The finale of Chien's residence in Long Beach comes Thursday night, when he joins Murry Sidlin and the Long Beach Symphony in the Terrace Theater for a performance of Tchaikovsky's Concerto No. 1. In many ways, he points out, the distance from the world of the in formance to the world of the per formance is not that great.
The symphony concert "is just another way of receiving the music. The difference is that your audience made the effort to be there. They are more mentally ready to listen.
"I think the concert situation has its own charm. And, for a young artist like me (Chien is 33), it's a great breeding ground for new contact."
Such an easygoing, unaffected approach to music-making suggests that the Hong Kong-born pianist was tailor-made for the Xerox-sponsored outreach program. It seems a bit surprising, then, that Chien "discovered Affiliated Artists by accident at Allegheny. It looked interesting, so I auditioned, and they accepted me." Next year, he will be in residence in Terre Haute, Ind.
Chien takes little credit for the success of his numerous informance programs here, dismissing the notion that there was ice to be broken between pianist and audience. "There is no ice to break. They just haven't been exposed to this before.
"Actually, I've been lucky so far. The people here are just like the weather: open, nice, friendly. It's definitely not Poland.
"The audiences have been right there with me," he notes. Part of the reason may be Chien's hang-loose approach, developed out of his teaching experiences at Allegheny--a school not generally recognized as an important music conservatory.
"I know it and they (the students) know it--music is not their main thing," he acknowledges. "But there's a realization that if they don't get it, I don't have to worry for them. In a large school, such as Juilliard (where Chien received his doctorate), if you have 10 students, you are dealing with 10 lives.
"It's the same with the informance audiences. A lot of times, you know they just aren't going to get it. Sometimes I have to be very flexible, knowing when a piece just isn't going over.
"To reach them, I'll often have to project more, to play more simply and convincingly. I prefer to think of it not as an adjustment but as a growth of my playing."