An MIT Alumni Association Publication

Valerie Chen ’22 admits that the prospect of soloing with the world-famous Boston Pops Orchestra at Tech Night at Pops is “a little bit terrifying.” Fortunately, she has built up a store of confidence over the years thanks to years of working with her best friend beside her: her cello.

“Naturally I’m very stage shy. I find it tough to stand in front of audiences,” Chen says. More than a decade of performing with her cello, however, has helped her to open up and express herself, she explains. “My cello has always been there for me.”  

It’s a winning combination. Together with her cello, Chen last year won the MIT Symphony Orchestra’s Concerto Competition as well as MIT’s Louis Sudler Prize in the Arts.  

On Friday, June 2, at 8:00 p.m. at Symphony Hall in Boston, the pair will team up again for one of the most popular events of reunion weekend: Tech Night at Pops, now in its 125th year. As the featured soloist performing with the Boston Pops Orchestra, Chen will play the third movement of the Cello Concerto in B Minor by Antonín Dvořák.

The Tech Night at Pops performance is one part of MIT Tech Reunions, which takes place June 2–4 on and around MIT’s campus. 

The Dvořák is one of the great cello concertos, one of the most well-known and well-played, and for good reason. It’s gushingly romantic.

“I am super excited about this concert,” Chen says. “The Dvořák is one of the great cello concertos, one of the most well-known and well-played, and for good reason. It’s gushingly romantic.”   

Written in 1894, the piece is believed to be an homage to a woman Dvořák loved and had learned was dying. “What I like to think is that he wrote the ending of the concerto for her as somewhat evoking religious imagery of the gates of heaven and the afterlife,” Chen says. “He famously edited the coda to reflect less of a big bang than you might expect for such a large and imposing work and to something more introspective and ethereal.”

Helping the Tech Night audiences feel the power of this emotional story is Chen’s job as a performer, she says. “I consider myself the voice between the composer and the audience,” she says, bringing to life music that first formed in another person’s mind more than a century ago. “It transcends time. Someone had this idea so long ago, and now it’s being performed in a different time and context.”  

Soloing at Tech Night is the latest high note in Chen’s long-playing musical career at MIT. As an undergraduate, she participated in both the MIT Symphony Orchestra and the MIT Chamber Music Society. She also founded a student group for cellos, CelloWorld(); (the name, complete with punctuation, is a play on “Hello World,” the traditional start of a computer program). The group has its own ensemble, Cello++ (a play on the programming language C++). And through this group, in 2020–2021, Chen helped organize Music Unites: Songs for Equity project, a joint initiative with the MIT Ribotones that highlighted the works of Black composers.

“Virtually all of my musical endeavors at MIT have been facilitated in some way by the MTA (Music and Theater Arts) department, and I am beyond grateful for all of the generous support!” says Chen, noting in particular that she benefited from the Emerson/Harris Fellowship, which funds private musical instruction at MIT. 

Yet, the cello is not Chen’s only passion. She majored in electrical engineering and computer science (EECS) as an undergraduate and is currently pursuing her PhD in robotics in EECS. She also works full-time as a robotics software engineer at Tutor Intelligence, a startup founded by MIT alums Josh Gruenstein ’21, MEng ’21 and Alon Kosowsky-Sachs ’20, MEng ’21 to provide robots to factories.

“When I’m not playing the cello, you can probably find me with a robot,” says Chen, adding that she is particularly interested in enabling robots to interact with objects more easily and fluidly than they do now. “I want to make cool robots that make a difference in people’s lives, and at the same time I want to continue music at a semiprofessional level. Other than that, I’m still figuring it out.”

Online registration for Tech Reunions is closed. MIT alums can register in-person for events that still have capacity during Tech Reunions weekend. Visit the Tech Reunions website for more information.

Photo: Bearwalk Cinema