Gig review: Belle Chen at Metronome

Words: Richard Wilkinson-Smith
Photos: Nigel King
Thursday 27 June 2024
reading time: min, words

Belle Chen is a captivating modern classical artist, born in Taiwan and raised in Australia. Last week, she graced the stage at Nottingham's Metronome – a venue with a growing reputation for bringing our city the very best in established and new touring music as part of their ongoing Piano Sessions series...

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Belle Chen walks onto the stage and sits down at her keyboard, surrounded by laptop, loops and synthesisers. Her hair is in a loose bun, and her clothes baggy (including her smiley face t-shirt which she has worn variations of recently at concerts), almost like she is about to have a casual walk into one of the musical adventures she is about to take us on. Promoting her new album, Ravel in the Forest, Chen has already become a stand-out presence on the modern classical scene, and the sheer variety of the artistry on show this evening is only going to help spread the word further afield. Inspired by modern soundscapes by the likes of Ryuichi Sakamoto (who sadly passed away last year), minimalist avant garde artists such as John Cage and French composers like Claude Debussy and Olivier Messiaen – the latter's "integration of nature, especially birdsong" into his compositions – shows the kind of scope that Chen touches upon, and the set is a masterclass in blending classical virtuosity with innovative soundscapes. 

A more reflective album than the epic Years of Pilgrimage from two years ago, Ravel in the Forest opens with the track Passages of Time, immediately drawing the audience into a timeless journey. The delicate interplay of piano and ambient synths set the perfect tone and showcases her ability to weave intricate musical tapestries. Then Three Birds touches on the influences that came before her, a vibrant display of Chen’s talents, capturing the essence of avian flight through rapid, fluttering music. Her fingers dance across the keys with precision, creating a lively atmosphere that makes us feel we're in the heart of a bustling forest. 

As the title of Closer to Rain suggests, the following track brings the sensation of impending change in weather, with soft, rhythmic patterns that mimicked the gentle patter of raindrops. Chen’s nuanced dynamics and subtle shifts in tempo make Closer to Rain a deeply immersive experience. And It Rains follows on perfectly: a seamless transition from gentle anticipation to a full-blown downpour. The cascading notes, electronic washes, and Chen’s emotive playing create a vivid soundscape of a rain-soaked forest, leaving the audience almost feeling the raindrops on their skin.

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A standout track of the evening – with Belle discussing in her introduction about her likeness to the creature's ability to stay in the background – The Chameleon showcases her flair for the dramatic, and eccentric. The shifting tempos and playful melodies aptly represent the titular creature’s changing colours and moods, with something akin to a heavy retro moog sound darting over the tight piano structure. Meanwhile, My Deers, a heartfelt composition with tender, serene melodies and warm harmonies painted a picture of a peaceful encounter with nature’s gentle creatures, evoking a sense of calm and wonder, a gentle stroll through a serene glade. 

The Dragonfly is Belle Chen's attempt to emulate the sound of a swarm of dragonflies and is nothing short of mesmerizing. The rapid, buzzing patterns, created by electronic loops matched by the passionate live keys create a sense of chaotic beauty, her technical prowess on full display and an exhilarating auditory experience that left us listeners in awe. Half a Moment follows, a reflective piece to slow the pace, inviting the audience to pause and breathe. The soft, lingering notes and contemplative mood provided a beautiful contrast to the preceding intensity, showcasing the emotional depth of Chen's playing.

Bringing the tempo back up, Closer is an engaging and rhythmic number, and a memorable highlight. The energetic interplay between melody and rhythm was infectious. Meanwhile in Whispering Tree, Belle Chen’s piano seems to speak, with each note a whisper from an ancient tree. The delicate, ethereal quality of the music creates a sense of intimacy, as if we are being let in on a timeless secret. The same applies to Nightfall Sounds, capturing the mysterious allure of the forest in the dark, this track is hauntingly beautiful, the blend of subtle electronic effects with Chen’s sensitive playing evoked the sounds of nocturnal creatures and rustling leaves, creating an atmospheric nocturne.

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 Her bold experimentation is evident heavily on Lone Wolf, a powerful and solitary journey. The striking chords and melodic lines painted a vivid picture of a lone wolf navigating the wilderness, embodying strength and resilience. Moonrise, as the name suggests, is a gentle ascent into the night sky. The rising music and luminous harmonies beautifully capture the serene and magical astrological moment, leaving the audience in a state of quiet awe.

One of the most delightful surprises of the evening, Birthday, is Chen’s improvisation of a song that she is afraid of being asked to play at real-life family gatherings, because there is a phrase in it that she struggles with. The actual performance is both spontaneous and heartfelt. Her ability to create a cohesive and emotionally resonant piece on the spot is truly impressive and adds a personal touch to the concert. 

Belle Chen thanks the audience and tells us how much she appreciates us attending Metronome's chilled, darkly lit concert room on this warm, muggy night (a perfect weather to recreate many of the above songs!) and closes the night with the evocative Assai Assai, bringing us to naturistic full circle, with lush, sweeping melodies and rich textures that encapsulate the essence of the Ravel in the Forest album, leaving everyone with a sense of wonder and fulfilment. Chen’s Nottingham performance is a tour de force, blending classical mastery with modern innovation. Each piece is a journey, inviting the audience into the heart of the musical woodlands of her imagination. 

(I would like to send many thanks to Charlotte Sometimes for her avid research and input on this piece)

Belle Chen performed at Metronome on 20th June 2024. 


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