Ray Chen Raises the Roof at S.F. Symphony

Steven Winn on May 7, 2018
Violinst Ray Chen

Between Prokofiev’s combustive Symphony No. 3 and the runaway freight train of Andrew Norman’s Unstuck (2008), the San Francisco Symphony made some strange and showy big sounds in their weekend subscription concerts at Davies Hall.

For anyone expecting that a 19th-century warhorse positioned at the center of the program would travel solidly familiar ground, it turned out that more musical agitation was in store. In an arresting and highly characterized solo turn, Ray Chen raised the roof on his own terms in the Brahms Violin Concerto. With conductor Juraj Valčuha as his impressive and responsive partner, Chen used a sinewy, dark-hued tone and interpretive daring to burrow through the Brahmsian grandeur to find the driving, tragic dimensions of this great piece.

Chen played with a conviction that bordered on recklessness at times, consistently attacking the solo part with distinctive phrasing and color — stark, jaunty, insouciant, raw-boned, insistent. The long first movement, handsomely launched by Valčuha’s decisive reading of the opening orchestral passage, took on a serious sense of purpose. Chen was lyrical but never lavish. Instead he seemed to argue for the music, the stakes always high. There was a steady pressure in his playing, of both thought and emotion, from snarling double stops to needling pianissimo trills.

Slovak conductor Juraj Valčuha

Chen brought an amber tone to the opening material of the Adagio, in a gratifying match with the woodwinds’ explorations. He took to gliding between notes, an alluring effect which sometimes compromised his intonation. It didn’t matter. By that point Chen had displayed the authority and chops to go where he would. In the final movement the soloist scoured away at the broad themes with a taut, borderline-coarse approach. The orchestra laid in the well-judged, at times even deferential, accompaniment to this propulsive, solo-forward performance.

At 29, the Taiwanese-born, Australian-raised Chen has the good looks and appealing presence to both balance and showcase his hot musical temperature. Toggling between grimaces and grins, and pausing to wipe his brow with a dark handkerchief, he seemed to relish the physicality of his playing. His bow, which took a beating, flew off the strings at the end of solo passages. A soulful reading of Paganini’s Caprice No. 21, performed as an encore, added a cheery, glittering pendant.

Prokofiev’s Third, which taps both the music and theatricality of the composer’s opera The Fiery Angel, filled the second portion of the evening. Given an exciting and richly colored performance, the symphony covered a lot of ground. By turns throbbing and effusive, solemn and weird (the glassy string glissandi in the Scherzo), the piece engaged the listener from beginning to end.

Composer Andrew Norman | Credit: Jessa Anderson

The first movement alone was a journey from percussion blasts to a blowsy trombone chorus to a curious pratfall of an ending. The Andante conjured a strange conversation for muttering muted trumpets, the flutes, two harps, and bass drum. The textures rapidly thinned and thickened throughout the piece, leaving the cellos and basses to themselves in one poignant section and creating a kind of pointillist woodwind effect elsewhere.

Valčuha was an excellent steward and advocate, steering through the thickets and exposed passages with finesse and fury. He elicited swagger and darkness, humor and melodrama. The musicians — with a special shout-out for the percussion section — played with precision and passion.

While it lasted only ten minutes, Norman’s Unstuck had so much going on it was hard to fathom on a first hearing. Seemingly discontinuous events follow each other in rapid fashion, from orchestral traffic noise to wilting brasses, burlesque to a Bernstein-like riff. There were a few measures that seemed to anticipate the Prokofiev to come.

By his own account, the piece stemmed from a period when Norman was creatively blocked. The title references a line from the novelist Kurt Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse-Five, in which a character “has come unstuck in time.”

It was fun if unmooring to hear Norman send all the pieces flying here. One by one they often captured the ear — the cellos turning from a sweet meditation to taunting “yaw-ways” later one, gun-shot blows from the drums, and a slow fade-out ending. It was provocative stuff that made one want to grasp a larger design. As they did all night, the orchestra sounded like they believed every note of it on faith.