The violinist next door: Ray Chen strikes a chord with the younger generation

Ray Chen’s youthful energy and mature talent has made him a global superstar in classical music. Photo: Publicity photo Ray Chen’s youthful energy and mature talent has made him a global superstar in classical music. Photo: Publicity photo

While many symphonies and orchestras have seen economic challenges in recent years, they’ve also been given a facelift through fresh takes on classical arrangements and some budding new instrumentalists.

Ray Chen falls into the latter category, bringing a passionate intensity to his instrument with every blazing stroke of the bow. Hailed as a “young violinist,” it’s his performance and open personality that are the keys to his success.

Chen, 26, has taken his violin around the world for shows in some of the most prestigious and coveted halls in the classical music business. While traveling, he’s used his instrument to strike chords with different audiences. Sporting an edgy haircut and Armani suit while performing, he takes to social media with a laid-back and silly demeanor in his free time. This has turned him into a classical music ambassador of sorts to a younger audience.

Chen seems to enjoy leading the charge for a new generation of fans. “Since I’m not a stuffy old violinist, I’ll wear the ‘young violinist’ mantle proudly,” says Chen, who performs with pianist Julio Elizalde in the Tuesday Evening Concert Series at the University of Virginia’s Cabell Hall Auditorium on February 23.

“For me, being relatable is one of the most important things about being a musician,” he says. “It provides a connection between the artist and the listener that goes beyond the music. As musicians, we have to understand the mindset of a composer who’s usually been dead a few hundred years and who lived in a completely different society, while at the same time understanding the current youth and what it means to be able to speak to them on a human-to-human level. It’s hard to keep up, but it’s exactly like learning two languages.”

Chen was born in Taiwan and grew up in Australia, and was accepted into the acclaimed Curtis Institute of Music in Philadelphia when he was 15. Winning a number of competitions—including the Yehudi Menuhin International Violin Competition (2008) and the Queen Elizabeth Competition (2009)—paved the way to becoming a professional musician.

While he admits that technology has bridged the gap between classical music and a new audience, he blames longtime American stereotypes for leaving imprints on classical soundscapes.

“Classical music does tend to have a stuffy, old, white rich people image associated with it, but it doesn’t have to be that way at all,” he says. “If you look at what’s happening in Asia and South America, you’ll find that the audiences are mostly people in their 20s and 30s, and that’s because classical music is marketed very differently there.”

Chen says his and Elizalde’s differences and their ability to challenge one another result in more dynamic performances. “It’s intense and we fight for our beliefs in what the music should sound like; how the phrase should be shaped; what emotion should be used,” says Chen. “Oftentimes it’s the passages that we disagree on that push us to finding greater heights than what we would have achieved separately.”

The upcoming concert will feature selections from classic composers such as Ludwig van Beethoven, Camille Saint-Saëns, Eugène Ysaÿe, Manuel de Falla and Vittorio Monti.

“The program was put together with the intention of having a large selection and range of repertoire while being very engaging for the listener,” Chen says. “It’s definitely an energetic program.”

He finds pleasure in playing lesser-known works, as much as those by recognizable composers. Among the pieces in the upcoming concert is Saint-Saëns’ Violin Sonata No. 1 in D minor, Op. 75, which Chen describes as being “immensely virtuosic” and “dark and stormy” compared with the composer’s usual lighter French style. After intermission, the mood morphs as the music takes a turn with a different vibe from the lush sonatas of the first half.

“It’s a super enjoyable program and it’s one that’s fun for newcomers and classical music connoisseurs alike,” says Chen, who has released three albums on Sony. His latest, 2014’s Mozart: Violin Concertos & Sonatas, is his debut of a Mozart-only repertoire.

While his bravery in approaching compositions seems to know no bounds, he admits there are works that intimidate him.

“There are a few pieces that will only get better with experience—like the Beethoven Violin Concerto or the Brahms Violin Concerto. It’s not that young musicians can’t play them or don’t understand them as well, but rather that some works just sound better when you’ve got a little more of life under your belt,” he says.

“A younger player might just react a little too quickly in a phrase that would otherwise have been more appropriate to let it sit and ferment a bit. For some composers it’s the opposite. Mozart, for example, was 19 when he wrote his violin concertos and the vibe of those compositions are full of youthful energy.”

Though he feels that age plays no factor in what musicians can achieve, Chen says that today’s classical concert scene seems less communal. He’d like to see it return to social gatherings where folks would congregate before and after shows.

“Nowadays you’re more likely to see people come in 10 minutes beforehand to their seats and leave immediately after,” he says. He hopes fashion and social media platforms, as well as TV shows such as “Mad Men” and movies such as The Great Gatsby will influence classical music concertgoers.

“People are looking for an occasion to dress up and go on a ‘fancy’ night out,” says Chen. “We have the perfect platform for people, we just have to make it interesting.”

Have a listen to Ray Chen, here.

Tuesday Evening Concert Series

Cabell Hall

February 23

–Anita Overcash