Soros Fellowship Brings Cellist Audrey Chen Closer to her Dream

April 13, 2022

By Bonnie Eissner

The Paul & Daisy Soros Fellowship, awarded to a handful of immigrants or children of immigrants, has special meaning for Chen, a Music doctoral student.

Audrey Chen Music Student
Audrey Chen (courtesy of Chen)

Graduate Center Music doctoral student and cellist Audrey Chen won a prestigious Paul & Daisy Soros Fellowship, a $90,000 prize that is awarded each year to a handful of immigrants or children of immigrants who show the potential to make significant contributions to the United States.  

Chen, whose parents immigrated from Taiwan, has performed on many of the world’s great stages including Carnegie Hall, the Mariinski Theatre, Royal Albert Hall, and Disney Hall. At age 15, she made her solo debut at the Kennedy Center. 

Audrey Chen plays Mendelssohn’s second cello sonata.

Her dream, she says, “is to keep playing chamber music, to keep performing,” to bring her work to educational settings, and to have an “artistic directing role in which I can create my own programs and curate my own projects.” Her experience as the child of immigrant parents has shaped and shaded that vision.

From Medicine to Music

Despite her many early successes, it wasn’t until she was a junior at Harvard, where she majored in molecular biology while pursuing a dual degree at the New England Conservatory, that Chen decided to become a professional musician, rather than a medical doctor.  

“Being a doctor is one of those pathways that is not only prestigious and financially stable, but it's just that thing that immigrants see as this path to an American dream,” she says. 

By her junior year, she and three friends had co-founded the Ravos String Quartet at the New England Conservatory. They performed in masterclasses and concerts at the conservatory and at venues in and around Boston, from the Boston Public Library to Wellesley College to public schools in the area.  

“Being with that group was something that has shaped me forever,” Chen says. “My love for chamber music blossomed. Not only did we learn all this repertoire, but we also created programs where we'd be like, ‘Okay, what would be a good way to introduce this movement from a Mozart quartet to a group of fourth graders?’”

Attuned to the Immigrant Experience

Chen was a fourth grader when she picked up the cello. She started playing the piano at age 5. Then her older sister switched from the piano to the violin. She wanted to do something similar, but “still be a little bit different,” so she chose the cello. 

Her parents paid for private lessons and took her to festivals and concerts, encouraging her love of music. They also instilled in her the values they carried as immigrants from central Taiwan. 

Her parents, she says, “never had the chance to pursue music when they were little, let alone even consider it as a career.” 

At large family reunions in Taiwan, Chen connected with her many relatives and drank in the culture that shaped her parents and their values.  

“There are a lot of these values of staying humble and kind of keeping to yourself and just being really considerate of other people that I have definitely internalized,” she says. “It’s how my mom has taught all of us.”  

Yet, as a musician, Chen says, “You really do have to put yourself out there, and you have to be more striking.” Chen recalls a mentor warning, “People will look right over you.” 

Chen wants to strike a balance between the expectation to shine and her mom’s advice to stay humble, be considerate.  

“It has led me to think about how I could also shape the musical field,” Chen says, “in that not always do you have to focus on who is the most brilliant person on stage and who's the most impressive.” Rather, she says, “What if we focused on how well a group is able to let each member have their moments to shine? How can you support other people so they have those moments as well? That's really what your music is all about too. Those are values that I think are uniquely tied to the immigrant experience.”

Finding Her Groove as a Music Doctoral Student 

Now, as a doctoral student at the Graduate Center, Chen is gaining new perspectives on her profession and a deeper appreciation for musical genres. She describes a disabilities studies class with Distinguished Professor Joseph Straus (Music) as illuminating and incredible.  

“You realize how music can be really impactful, and that it can represent different bodies,” she says, adding that the class also “led me to question how the conservatory might oppress certain kinds of bodies and how things could be different.” 

A class on the Beatles spurred her to listen to their music 24/7. 

“It helps me find my groove in classical music,” she says. 

The chance to study with Professor Marcy Rosen (GC/Queens, Music), who teaches cello performance, was a big draw, and Chen says, “She has been incredible. She’s an amazing musician and performer.”  

“Audrey's background and training are impeccable,” says Rosen. “She's very bright, intelligent, and is always looking for ways to increase her expression and communication through the music. She's a total joy to work with.” 

Occasionally Chen’s dad will mention that she can still go to medical school if things don’t work out. She likes to tease that she will be a doctor — a doctor of musical arts. Chen’s Soros fellowship has made her parents especially happy.  

“It definitely takes a load off for the next few years for them, just mentally and financially and everything,” she says. “I think that it's also up to me to keep telling them, to keep reminding them of what I am doing, as a musician, what that career looks like, because not very many people might know, and the more that I can spread that and show other people … people who are in similar situations, who have not had as many peers and mentors as I did growing up, to know that that's a possibility for them as well.” 

Hear Audrey Chen Perform at the Graduate Center on April 26  

Alongside pianist Gabrielle Chou, Chen will perform an all-female composers program with works by Louise Farrenc, Nadia Boulanger, Kaija Saariaho, and Dora Pejacevic. 

Tuesday, April 26, 2022, at 1:00 p.m.
Watch the livestream here.  


Other Soros Fellows from the Graduate Center 

Audrey Chen is the second Graduate Center student to be named a Paul & Daisy Soros Fellow. Polina Nazaykinskaya was awarded the fellowship in 2015 as a D.M.A. in Music student. Professor Van C. Tran (Sociology) was a 2004 fellow.

Chen is also one of three 2022 Soros Fellows from CUNY. Read more in this press release. ​

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