Ray Chen breaks the strings stigma

As he travels the world wowing crowds, Taiwanese-Australian violinist Ray Chen wants to show that classical music is fun

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      Ray Chen is one of the biggest young violin stars in the world today, but he also makes a mean plate of spaghetti. That’s what he’s digging into when the Straight reaches him at his girlfriend’s house in New York City, where he’s taking a brief break before heading out to tour the world again. He describes the way he makes his favourite dish from scratch, lovingly chopping the garlic and cooking it in olive oil, adding fresh tomatoes and lots of mushrooms. Is cuisine another of the fast-rising musician’s passions?

      With the same modesty he shows when referring to his vibrant, emotionally nuanced violin-playing, the affable artist admits, after slurping a piece of pasta: “My love of eating is far greater than my love of cooking.”

      Chen credits his penchant for food in part to his Taiwanese heritage; he rates the eating in his birth country “probably the best in the world”. With a uniquely international background, Chen was born there, but soon moved to Australia, where he lived until he was 15, when he made it into Philadelphia’s acclaimed Curtis Institute of Music and moved to America, away from his family. He had always wanted to play the violin: in what has now become a famous childhood story, at four he sawed a chopstick across a guitar before his parents bought him the real instrument.

      “My parents are not musicians. For me, there was always a record player, a CD player, and that was about it,” says Chen, his accent almost completely Oz-free and Americanized. “But like so many Asian families, this is the first generation where, with education and wealth, you should learn a classical music instrument and that should be part of your upbringing. And I think that is great—most of these kids don’t become classical musicians, but that’s not what’s important. When I began I was the same as anyone else; I did it casual, as a hobby. My parents were worried, to be honest, because they didn’t know what it would mean to be a classical musician.”

      The point where they probably first realized things were getting serious was in 1998, when the nine-year-old Chen was chosen to represent Australia at the Nagano Olympics’ opening concert. “That was my first VIP treatment overseas and I loved it. I thought to myself, ‘I could really get used to this,’ ” he says with a laugh.

      Another turning point was winning the international Queen Elisabeth Competition in 2009, which opened the door to a global career and a Sony Classical recording contract. Just three-and-a-half years since then, and at just 24, Chen is a charismatic stage presence around the world, as memorable for his concerts from Tokyo to Berlin as for his snappy Armani suits and funky haircut. (He even featured in a recent Italian fashion spread.)

      When he comes to play with the Vancouver Symphony Orchestra, he’ll be wielding a centuries-old instrument—the 1702 “Lord Newlands” Stradivarius, on loan from the Nippon Music Foundation—whose sound he vividly describes as “chocolate” in comparison to his previous Strads’ vanilla and caramel.

      While here, he’ll tackle the fireworks of Pablo de Sarasate’s Carmen Fantasy and Zigeunerweisen—the former for the first time. Sarasate’s passionate, finger-fraying works are far afield from the romantic compositions by Felix Mendelssohn and Peter Ilich Tchaikovsky that Chen first made a name with, and that’s the point. These days, his repertoire is wide-ranging.

      “My attitude toward repertoire and violin-playing and music—and life in general—is to experience as much as possible and give everything a shot,” he explains. “In the end it enriches your life and takes your music to a whole other level. And that means giving all sorts of composers a try. I hope that I’m a well-rounded musician. In the end you do what you love. If certain pieces aren’t what you like, don’t do them….I’ll play the pieces I feel strongly about.

      “It’s easy when you’re a young artist to be put in a niche. It’s easy to say you’re the young, hot, fast-fingered violinist,” he adds, and then says with characteristic humour: “Come to think of it, that’s what I’m playing in Vancouver!”

      No matter what he’s interpreting, Chen says, he accesses his trademark emotional intensity through imagery. With the fiery Carmen piece, that means a very specific movie is going to be playing in his head.

      “That’s what I’ve done since I was a kid. It’s so important: you react to things more strongly from a story in your mind. It’s not just ‘Oh, yes, I’m supposed to be happy.’ Well, why?” he says. “For Carmen, I think of a dark-haired woman in a red dress and I’m seeing her while I’m playing. Okay, this sounds a bit strange, but she’s looking over her shoulder and flicking her dress.

      “It’s fun!” emphasizes Chen, basically summing up his entire approach to classical music, one he tries to get across when he speaks to music students or when he’s communicating via his popular website or Twitter and Facebook accounts. “There seems to be a stigma that it’s long, it’s boring, it’s no fun. My goal is to break that perception.”

      And breaking it Chen clearly is, from his cool suits to his unexpected repertoire to his social-media missives. And to think it all started with a chopstick and a guitar.