Stella Chen looks back on her 2019 Competition experience

In May 2019, Stella Chen won the Violin Competition. Five years later, she looks back on her life-changing Queen Elisabeth Competition experience.

People used to say that I turned into a different person when I picked up the violin. This offended me when I was little - I took such pride in the authenticity of my expression, even as a child! Many years later, I now understand why that was common perception: I was excruciatingly shy growing up. My longtime teacher, Li Lin, tells the story that at the end of every lesson for many years, I would wave and mouth “goodbye”, but was too shy to make a sound.

Through the violin I dared to have a voice, through music I found my way of communication. My parents never wanted me to become a violinist. They recognized my affinity for music, but it was just one of the many things that they expected me to take seriously and excel at. But my heart told me differently. The tiny voice inside my heart told me that I needed to devote my life to music, and my Queen Elisabeth experience was the affirmation that I never saw coming. One of the greatest unexpected gifts: every day since, I grow more in life into the person that peeked her head out through the violin as a child.

I always knew that I loved music, I loved communicating with audiences, I knew I had something to say, and yet I didn’t quite believe that without the flashing lights, without the sparkles, I, an Asian-American girl that does not identify as a prodigy, could be one of the voices. Queen Elisabeth—not the prize, but the experience—changed all of that. The open-heartedness and patience with which the jury and audience listened to my beloved Schubert Fantasie in the semi-final round is a half-hour of my life I will never forget. The enthusiasm of the entirety of Belgium, the full audiences, the support of the wonderful Nicolas, Patricia, and the rest of the team, my unbelievable host parents, Johan and the late Mia, who I love as my own family, are the fuel to the fire that drive my unwavering quest to share music in different ways all around the world.

Looking back, my experience at the competition May-June of 2019 was nothing short of miraculous. Truly without any expectations, I arrived in Belgium having just completed my doctoral coursework, and with absolutely nothing to lose. My mindset: “Wouldn’t it be nice to participate in a competition with that sort of legacy, to stand on that stage where so many of your heroes were introduced to the world, and show your kids the videos someday?” I showed up with only two dresses in my suitcase. You’ll see that I wore the same dress for the first round and the Mozart concerto evening of the second round. 😊

Everything exceeded my expectations. My host parents were angels, Flagey, so beautiful in the videos, was even more stunning in person, the full audiences, the competition team, the list goes on and on. To my amusement and my mother’s dismay, my Wikipedia page, presumably made by some kind European stranger soon after the QE competition, still lists my birthday as July 12th rather than December 7th (because the date and month positions are reversed in Europe/America, thus aging me by half a year). So every July 12th, I’ll get some happy birthday wishes from friends in the EU, which I happily accept as a half-birthday wish!

Since QE 2019, I have experienced more extremes than ever before. To name just a few highs: I got to record an all-Schubert album with pianist Henry Kramer on the Apple-led label Platoon, which garnered me the 2023 Gramophone Young Artist of the Year. I met my producer Adam Abeshouse, who is one of the best humans and musicians I’ve ever had the pleasure of knowing. The experience of ringing in the new year with Osmo Vänskä and the Minnesota Orchestra will forever be etched in my heart. So was walking into Carnegie Hall with Henry to make my debut recital, praying that our COVID tests would come back negative (thankfully they did).

Other exciting events are still on the horizon. This summer, I make my Concertgebouw debut with the wonderful Brussels Philharmonic, debut with the orchestra I grew up hearing at home, the San Francisco Symphony, serve as a teaching artist at the Nume Festival in Italy (how recently I was a pupil at these things!) and more. It’s difficult to describe in words my deep gratitude for the people I have met, the places I have been, the music I have been able to create with wonderful colleagues.

Looking back now at the videos of my QE performances that have resurfaced, I am flooded with so many emotions. The same girl, but so different. Following the competition, I have experienced so many wonderful things I never would have dreamed of. More meaningful than the glitter of these new heights is the daily gift of using my voice. I’ve believed in what I have to say through the violin since childhood, and I’m grateful to have a microphone to pour my heart out.

As I watch friends and pupils participate in the Queen Elisabeth Competition now, I am reminded of simple, human moments from my experience. My host parents reading in the newspaper that my favorite food is any kind of noodle and then immediately having pasta and ramen on the table for dinner, giggling with Sylvia over how exactly we were going to request things during the final round when our phones would be confiscated, running terrified to ask Shannon for help curling my hair because I had no idea how to use a curling iron…the good memories are endless.

Since 2019, we’ve collectively faced new, foreign challenges. From the pandemic to war and everything in between, it is clear to me that we live in a world that desperately needs classical music more than ever before. Yes, the Queen Elisabeth Competition is a springboard for young musicians. Ten-year-old Stella was infatuated with David Oistrakh, and two decades later, his sound still brings the hint of a smile to my lips and twinkle to my eye. To be on a list of 19 (soon to be 20) Queen Elisabeth violin winners headed by Oistrakh will always be the honor of a lifetime. But that accolade is just the cherry on top. Far more importantly, for me the Queen Elisabeth competition will forever stand as an emblem of hope, a celebration of young artistry full of warmth, enthusiasm, and love; one that I am proud to be a part of and will always look forward to watching. With that, toi toi toi to all!!

With love,

Relive the performances of Violin 2024
The Competition's CD's
This site uses cookies to provide you with the best experience possible.
By clicking on « ACCEPT » or continuing to browse the site, you accept the use of cookies on your web browser. For more information about our cookie policy and the different types of cookies used, click on Learn more