David Lauderdale

Pianist brings her talent, her story to the Lowcountry

Maybe Stephanie Chen will leave with a whisper of the Lowcountry in her musical voice.

It's a voice she has to pull on demand from inanimate piano hammers, strings and keyboards.

But she's young and bright-eyed and plays the piano like few who have ever walked this earth. From her first lessons at age 6, she has made it to The Juilliard School in New York City and has performed with symphony orchestras and in a Carnegie Hall recital hall, the Fontainebleau Festival and, as of this week, two Hilton Head Island elementary schools.

The 21-year-old practices four to five hours a day. And she's fully prepared to step to the stage tonight with a smile on her face to perform in the Hilton Head International Piano Competition.

Still, she sees herself as a work in progress.

"I'm trying to find my own style," she said. "I'm finding my own musical voice."

Part of that process is competition. It's hard to be among the 20 people from 11 countries invited to compete here. They'll scramble through Monday's finals for total cash prizes of $33,000.

What they really want is simply to be heard by many people, from many stages. The 15th piano competition put on by the Hilton Head Symphony Orchestra at First Presbyterian Church will help get them there.

Chen is a first-generation American who grew up surrounded by music. Her parents are from Taiwan but met at school in Buffalo, N.Y. They're both computer engineers with IBM in Austin, Texas. Her mother conducts the Austin Chinese Choir.

When Chen had to choose between competing dreams of becoming a doctor or a concert pianist, she went with music. It's a dream that can't wait. Worldwide competition begins young. The 2011 international competition here will be for pianists ages 13 to 17. Besides, "with one concert you can affect so many people at one time, while a doctor can help one at a time," she said.

From Juilliard professor Jerome Lowenthal, she gets less hammering on exactly what to do than help in learning to speak from within.Chen calls it storytelling.

On a recent night she uncharacteristically teared up at a performance by Romanian concert pianist Radu Lupu. When she got home, she wrote on her Web site:

"I want people to be eager to come to my concerts and listen to what I have to say."

While here, Chen has been hosted by Buck and Karen Edwards, whose home has been bursting with beautiful music. On Wednesday, they went for a stroll on the beach. Maybe there Chen could hear the voice of the Lowcountry.

Maybe someday she will say it onstage, and a young musician in the audience will be moved to tears.