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Ray Chen, Today’s Virtuoso

October 21, 2018

A star violinist has a way of reflecting the essence of an era. The passionate romanticism of Niccolò Paganini, “the Modern Orpheus,” matched the ethos of early 19th-century Europe, while the deeply emotive tone of Jascha Heifetz expressed angst over the span of the two World Wars. Later, there was the ’80s glitz of firebrand Nigel Kennedy, and the fin de siècle innovation of Hilary Hahn. Each player’s life and music offered a way of taking a pulse of the times, and by extension, the state of classical music. Enter Ray Chen, a 29-year-old Taipei-born Australian with award-winning technique, an open-bordered personality, and a YouTube following worthy of a pop star.

Yes, you can hear him playing Mendelssohn with the world’s greatest symphonies, (or this month at the San Francisco Symphony playing Lalo’s Symphonie espagnole,) but you can also watch him eating dim sum, napping face down on the bed instead of practicing, or being silly trying to sneak into a practice room at Juilliard. If you’re old enough to recall the broadcast of the opening ceremonies in Nagano, Japan, in 1998, then you remember an astounding little kid blowing the roof off the place. These days, he can heard talking earnestly about the discouragement common to aspiring classical musicians, or drawing attention to and fundraising for “musical heroes,” like Stanford Thompson, the founder of Play On, Philly! — an organization providing musical education and community to young people in Philadelphia, where Chen is currently based, and where he matriculated at the Curtis Institute of Music at the age of 15.

As a child in Brisbane, Australia, Chen found his own musical hero in a woman named Vron Hawkins. On a phone interview with SFCV, he is eager to spell her name, and give her credit.

“I had a fantastic teacher. Her entire family became a music school on the weekends. The Hawkins family, they were so generous. The mother taught beginner violin, the father, her husband, taught piano and flute, her daughter taught more advanced violin, and the son taught percussion and trumpet, or something like that. Every Saturday we had group lessons, so I started out in group lessons, then I moved on to individual lessons, but I never wanted to give up the group lessons because that was what was so exciting to me, the social aspect of music.”

The idea of playing the violin came from Chen himself, when as a four-year-old he took a toy guitar and placed it under his chin and began playing it with a chopstick. Chen has traded the toy guitar for the 1715 Stradivari known as the “Joachim” violin because it once belonged to Joseph Joachim, who collaborated with Brahms and was a protégé of Mendelssohn. Both the Brahms and Mendelssohn violin concerti are frequent fare for Chen.

Playing the violin requires an exceptional ear, and sensitivity to intonation. Asked about this particular affinity, Chen replies, “Isn’t that what talent is, essentially? When someone is talented at something it usually means they have a sensitivity towards that thing, whether it is writing, violin, or piano. That is why throughout our lives, but especially in the beginning when we’re young, it’s good for us to have those opportunities to be exposed to as many activities as possible, because that’s when your brain is the most receptive to having that sensibility. Once you get older you’re more set in your ways, you dismiss things more easily, and you rely on experience, which is good in ways, but learning a new thing it’s better not to rely on experience because you don’t have any.”

Arriving in Philadelphia was certainly a new experience for Chen, perhaps even a shock. “I realized everybody was somewhat of a hometown hero, but their hometowns were bigger than mine. That was something of a humbling experience that I had to go through. But I like a challenge. My personality type is not somebody who walks away from a challenge. I like to walk towards it. It doesn’t mean I will always come out on top, but I’ll keep trying.”

One of those challenges came to Chen as he began his career during an era of precarious finances for many arts organizations, and this led Chen to take a more active, progressive route with his public relations.

“I felt like I wanted to show people who I am, but also what classical music really is. Because those years things were really pessimistic. All the ‘Is classical music dying?’ stuff, and [cultural commentator] Norman Lebrecht. In general, it was, ‘the sky was falling.’ It wasn’t the best time for classical music, right after the crash, basically from 2009 or 10, to 2014. Those were some pretty dark years for classical music and that was basically when my career began, so there was something that was needed. We needed to put ourselves outside of this pity box, or whatever it was, because we have a great product, and we are funny people. People just don’t know that. The world is moving on and I felt we had to embrace that. It’s weird to hear me say this because obviously this is a no-brainer now, and it was only four years ago, but back then people really weren’t getting it.”

Chen began making very short, lively, mostly humorous videos. “I first started the funny videos in 2014. Four years has changed so much in social media. Four years ago, orchestras were hesitant to be on Facebook, and now Facebook is almost old news. It’s amazing how quickly we’ve gotten used to an idea. Back then, showing humorous sides of the classical musician just wasn’t done. Even a relatable side was not really done, except for what was already on mainstream media, like Lenny Bernstein or Yo-Yo Ma, but on social media, there wasn’t so much going on.”

YouTube following aside, Chen has his classical bona fides: . He won the Yehudi Menuhin Competition at the age of twenty, and the Queen Elisabeth Competition the following year, and recorded albums for Sony and Deutsche Grammophon before his current release with Decca, The Golden Age. He has been heard as a featured soloist around the world and his performances of the Lalo in San Francisco, Oct. 25–27, will be a follow-up to his performance here of Brahms violin concerto this past May.

 “The Brahms was more high-brow. Here you get the Spanish style, the lust and fire and in-the-moment passion, which is really fun to play. I guess it’s like being an actor who gets to do a different character for each movie — I get to do all these different characters. I really enjoy this piece. It’s got five movements and it’s kind of like a dance. [Édouard] Lalo was a French composer and dedicated this piece to Pablo de Sarasate, a Spanish violinist and composer, and Sarasate has written many Spanish dances as well, so it’s a little bit more like five Spanish dances rather than a concerto.”

Chen did take some flak for the videos, at first. “I had so many people say, ‘you have to be careful, you won’t be taken seriously,’ and I said, ‘the videos aren’t for the presenters, they’re for the kids out there.’ Orchestras were trying to figure out what they could do, and they thought of pop up concerts or playing in nonclassical venues like bars, and I thought ‘that’s cool, whatever helps,’ but I felt the most direct method was to not try and cast the net into the general public, but to those people who are learning an instrument right now, because those people are one step closer, or even a half-step closer, to what we do as professional musicians than your average Joe Schmoe, who has no idea about what classical music is. The traction you’re going to get from people who are one step away versus two steps away, it’s more likely.

“I decided along with the idea that young people are on social media, to do relatable stuff, which means funny, something to break the ice. I’ve always used humor to break the ice, and it works, especially if you keep your humor PG. People said, ‘wow, he has no shame,’ which they said both positively and negatively. But now people don’t even question whether or not it’s the right thing to do. Every orchestra is scrambling to have a social media presence and adding that to their marketing team. That’s where the past few years have gotten us.”

So be on the lookout for a short promo video for the upcoming S.F. Concerts. But Chen’s ease with the broad exposure of multiple social-media platforms is not the only way he can be classified as contemporary. He is of a generation that seems to be conscious of the toll classical training can take on a person’s self-esteem. Chen, who is at ease physically and highly expressive onstage, acknowledges that he had his share of critiques, and that yes, some did try to get him to tone down his physical gestures. “I used to get a lot of criticism about my facial expressions. I went through that a lot. Their reasoning was ‘well, it takes away from your performance, and the physical expression is beyond how you’re sounding.’”

With that in mind, Chen is working not only to create future audiences, to let them know that classical musicians can be funny, or hip, but also to let students of classical music know that if they are feeling discouraged or alienated, they are not alone. To that end, Chen has begun a motivational series of videos on dealing with insecurity, and he talks about separating “the musician you” from the “you you.”

“When I say separating the musician you from the you you, I mean when you get criticism as a violinist, do not take those criticisms personally. I find that’s very difficult for people who have been playing music all their lives because they started at such a young age, they identify with it. I did that too. If you’re a great player, you gain confidence from that. We walk such a narrow path. We’ve sacrificed everything for that. We’re not good at something else, or other things. Part of us feels that way.

“So, when you’re not good at the thing you’re supposed to be good at, that can be very demoralizing. The whole world comes crashing down around you. You’re basically putting all your eggs in one basket. I try to remind people that it’s not the case, that we need to find more balance. Also, it’s good to be able to improve as a violinist or musician, and to separate that [from the rest of you] if you can. If you look at yourself in the third person, then you can identify a lot of things, and solve a lot of the problems you might come upon along the way. I find that a common problem that people encounter, they can’t separate themselves.”

It may seem to many that a star of Chen’s magnitude doesn’t have these sorts of issues, and part of the purpose for the casual videos and the motivational series is to disabuse young people of that awe. “I spend most of the five minutes trying to convince them that I’ve been through this and then two minutes trying to brush off the dark thoughts that enter people’s minds.”

Chen fits all of these outreach projects around the periphery of a demanding, globetrotting performance schedule. “I have ideas about what I want to do for more [of the series], but I would rather it be done properly and a few years apart. These things are a legacy. I’m already starting to think about what I want to say to people and how do I want to say it because once it’s out there, it’s out there. Social media can be so fleeting, like Instagram stories; people are not really scrolling back. But YouTube does become a gallery of sorts and a personal portrait of who you are, so there are certain things where one has to take social media very seriously if you want to make an impact.”

Chen acknowledges that the gig at the Olympics had a big impact on him. “For an 8-year-old to be flown over for what they do — violin — to a foreign country, to the Olympics! That was pretty cool. But if I didn’t do that, I would still have found music, without a doubt. I loved everything about it. It was so much fun, but that was the icing on the cake.”

The propelling force for Chen’s passion for both music and his videos is communication and community. The close-knit experience with the Hawkins family and the Suzuki method set Chen on this path. “That’s what interests me the most about music, the social aspect, the communication. If you took that away I couldn’t do it. This explains a lot about who I am and why I am the way I am. Why I have a more approachable nature compared to other classical musicians. It’s the communication. Music itself is great. But music is the medium of that communication. The way it affects people is fascinating to me.”

Chen seems to be a natural communicator, on and off stage. His speaking voice, for example, adapts to his surroundings to the degree that when he is interviewed on American television his accent is pure U.S.A., and when interviewed for Australian TV, one hears the native Brisbane sound.

“Many friends have brought that up,” he says, “and I’ve thought about it too. In the end I think I do it because I just want to better communicate with the person I’m talking to. If the person is American I want to talk like them because it just removes a barrier. Even when I was in Japan, by the end of the two weeks, when I was speaking with my host family, who had somewhat broken English, I was speaking that way because I felt if I spoke too properly it would just be weird. It makes people more comfortable.”

Chen, an avid traveler, still returns to visit that host family. For the moment, his public-relations savvy, his virtuosity, and love of playing those many characters have all contributed to his rapid rise to stardom, but he also seems to have an innate ability to know what will work with an audience, large or small, in a competition, concert hall, or in cyberspace. All this sociability and generosity of spirit seem to be deep and authentic parts of Chen, and in the long run may help him to leave that positive legacy for the industry he loves. Maybe this prescience was an aftereffect of relocating through time zones from Taiwan to Australia as an infant, or perhaps some people are just born to live their lives ahead of the curve.

Lisa Houston is a feature contributor to Classical Singer magazine and San Francisco Classical Voice, and the founder of SingerSpirit.com, a website for singers.