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Living a pipe dream: La Jolla High grad Chelsea Chen returning to San Diego for all-female organ festival

Organist and La Jolla High School alumna Chelsea Chen will play at the Spreckels Organ Pavilion on Monday, Aug. 1.
(Lisa-Marie Mazzucco)

Chelsea Chen has more than two decades of organ playing behind her, but the 2001 graduate of La Jolla High School credits several La Jollans with influencing her passion for the pipes.

Chen, who is now based in Zurich, Switzerland, will take the stage next month at the Spreckels Organ Pavilion in San Diego’s Balboa Park as part of the 34th annual San Diego International Summer Organ Festival, which runs through Labor Day, Monday, Sept. 5.

The festival, titled “A Tribute to Women in Music” and organized by Raúl Prieto Ramirez — the Spreckels Organ Society artistic director and San Diego civic organist — features a different female performer at 7:30 p.m. every Monday.

Chen will play Aug. 1. All performances are free and open to the public.

Chen said she didn’t realize the festival was an all-female affair when she accepted the invitation.

Encouraged to play pieces by women for the performance, Chen composed a varied program that will feature her own piece “Taiwanese Suites” and a “Phantom of the Opera Medley” arranged by Chen’s former Juilliard classmate Yui Kitamura, plus classical pieces and even “The Flintstones” theme.

For the festival to focus on music composed by women is special, Chen said, because classical music is predominantly composed by men.

“The most famous pieces people know are all by men,” she said. “I think that’s changing because women have had the opportunities now to do this sort of traveling career and to be a full-time composer. I know some amazing women composers.”

Chen said she wrote “Taiwanese Suites” for the Spreckels Organ and her 2003 concert there before leaving for Taiwan on a Fulbright scholarship that immersed her in her father’s native Taiwanese language and culture. She continued to collect Taiwanese folk songs and melodies, arranging them for organ.

“When I look back, that [2003] concert and that piece really set off my performing career because it’s my signature piece that people have asked me to play for the last 20 years,” she said.

Chelsea Chen began taking organ lessons while attending La Jolla High School.
(Darius Liktorius)

Since then, in addition to performing, Chen launched her website, chelseachen.com, studied at Yale University and composed and published music, becoming a concert artist full time in 2009.

She last played at Spreckels in 2018. The venue’s organ, the largest outdoor organ in the world, is “a treasure for San Diego,” Chen said.

Chen first fell in love with playing organ at a camp the summer before high school. She started private lessons as a sophomore, taught by organist and La Jollan Leslie Robb at St. Paul’s Lutheran Church in Pacific Beach and by pianists and La Jollans Lori Bastien Vickers and the now-late Jane Bastien.

Chen said her La Jolla High choral director, Malou Rogers, gave her a key to St. Andrew’s by-the-Sea Episcopal Church in Pacific Beach because finding places to practice organ music is more difficult than finding a piano.

She spent hours daily at St. Andrew’s in her senior year to prepare for art school auditions.

“Women have had the opportunities now to do this sort of traveling career and to be a full-time composer. I know some amazing women composers.”

— Chelsea Chen

She said she is drawn to the organ because of “the tone variety that you can create,” noting that an organ is built from pipes ranging from “really soft ... that sound like little flutes to [those that sound like] really loud trumpets.”

Playing the organ is like “conducting your own orchestra,” Chen said. “You have so many options.”

Being an organist is a “fully body exercise,” using all four limbs, she said. Learning to play is difficult, she added, as it requires using one’s feet to play up to 32 notes.

For more information about the 34th annual San Diego International Summer Organ Festival, visit spreckelsorgan.org.