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Exclusive Interview with Ray Chen: February 8, 2011

Ray Chen
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On Friday, January 14, 2011, Artistic Director Nolan Gasser spoke with rising-star Australian violinist Ray Chen, whose debut Sony Classics release is simply and provocatively entitled, Virtuoso. In this fascinating interview, Mr. Chen discusses the intriguing program on the new disc – ranging from technically fiery works like Tartini / Kreisler’s “Devil’s Trill” Violin Sonata and Wieniawski’s Variations on an Original Theme to mature, emotionally demanding works like Bach’s “Chaconne” and Franck’s Violin Sonata. The two also discuss how the CD program relates to Mr. Chen’s own persona, the challenges of developing a unique violin tone, his views on the future of classical music, his blogging activities, and much more. Beyond the interview, the Feature also includes a FREE STREAM of 1 track from the new album for ALL VISITORS to Classical Archives and a set of Ray Chen videos. Don’t miss this entertaining discussion with a budding and energetic new figure in classical music.

“When it comes to creating a violin tone, I just try to be myself – meaning, that it has to be natural and reflect who I am as a person. I believe that your personality should show through in your playing, and this won’t happen if you’re trying to play or sound like someone else.”
– Ray Chen

A note to our visitors outside the US: Due to licensing restrictions, we are unfortunately unable to present here the new Sony Classics album by Ray Chen. We are thus pleased to offer the FREE STREAM from the album, and to display Mr. Chen’s artistry via the videos on the right column.

Nolan Gasser: Ray Chen, welcome to Classical Archives. Things seem to be moving pretty fast and furious for you at this very early stage of your career: having won two prestigious competitions, most recently the Queen Elizabeth Competition in Brussels in 2009 - and quickly followed by your being signed by Columbia Artists, and then by Sony Classics, and now here we are on the eve of your first release. I imagine that these are some exciting days for you?

Ray Chen: Absolutely. I was just going through my calendar yesterday, and I realized that it's been one year this week since I signed with Sony, and thus a year-and-a-half since the Queen Elizabeth competition - I was amazed at how quickly the time has flown; and while it seems quick, at the same time a lot has happened in this period. Yes, I'm very excited about this release, and excited about what's to come; I guess it's the "young artist" thing, but I'm fresh and ready to go [laughs]!

NG: Right, no lack of energy, as you've also indicated on one of your blogs - which we'll come back to.

Now, I've read the story of you picking up a toy guitar at age of four and playing it, not as most four-year olds would do - by strumming the strings, but by attempting to bow them with a chopstick.

RC: Yes, this is a funny image that my family has - we have photos of this in my house in Australia [Chen was born in Taiwan, and moved with his family to Brisbane, Australia, when he was an infant]. Of course, I also played it like a normal guitar, but I guess I got bored, and decided to try something else.

NG: Did this come in the wake of seeing an orchestra concert, or actually seeing a solo violin performance?

RC: In truth, I don't recall exactly. It may even have been something I saw on [children's TV show] Sesame Street; I really have no idea.

NG: Sure, it's hard to go back that far in our memory banks. But clearly something stimulated you, and the calling for the violin came to you pretty early. Still, I'm wondering - is this type of high-profile solo career something you played over in your mind's eye as you were a young violin student - and thus something that you felt confidently was in your grasp; or are you still pinching yourself in disbelief?

RC: I have to say that I was never shy about what I wanted; whenever someone asked me, as a young kid of 7 or 8 years old, what I wanted to do, I would always say, "I want to be a world-famous violinist, and tour all over the world." It was my dream, and still is. Things certainly have been moving pretty fast in the past few years, so yes - in one sense I'm pinching myself, but I just take it one step at a time: there's always the next concert to focus on, so I don't have too much time to daydream.

NG: Well, building a career as a performing musician takes so much work, it has be something that you fully believe it already from a young age.

Let's move into talking about your first release on Sony. It has a pretty provocative title: Virtuoso; how did that title get selected?

RC: The repertoire came first - it was largely from my graduate recital at Curtis [Institute of Music in Phildelphia]. The title was more difficult; we played over a few ideas - since the name of a first CD is always very important. At first we thought of something simple, like "Ray Chen" or "Presenting Ray Chen"; I personally didn't care that much, since I was more concerned with what was inside the disc. When they suggested "Virtuoso", at first I was a bit hesitant - thinking, "Isn't that a bit ostentatious?" But in the end we thought that it reflected the repertoire - which is in fact quite virtuosic. Now, "virtuoso" often carries a bad connotation these days, but I did some research, and originally the word was simply synonymous with "expert performer", which in turn suggests the need of an enthusiastic audience. So, the title seemed logical enough, and I went with it. What's most important, of course, is the content of the program. This was a program I played from the heart, and hopefully it reaches the audience that way.

NG: It's a wonderful recording and I think that you've struck a nice balance between virtuosity and expression, mixing works that dazzle with technical flair - as with the "Devil's Trill" Sonata by Tartini / Kreisler and the Variations, Op.15 by Wieniawski perhaps most of all; but also works that appear more directly concerned with emotional expression - namely, the "Chaconne" [from the Partita No.2 in D-, BWV1004 of Bach, and especially the Franck Violin Sonata in A. In your introductory letter on the CD, you stated that you put this program together very carefully - not only to appeal to a broad palette of tastes, but because these pieces "represent" who you are. Can you give us a bit more clarity on what you mean by that, and how these pieces help to define you as an artist?

RC: I think they represent me more as a person than specifically as an artist - though, of course, the two go hand-in-hand. Like everyone, I have many facets to my personality - so, the Bach is representative of my serious, philosophical side; the Tartini Sonata and the Wieniawski Variations show off my fun-loving side; and the [Wieniawski] Légende represents my romantic side. At least this is who I think I am [laughs]. Plus, the Franck Sonata, as I write in the letter, represents in itself a kind of life cycle.

NG: That makes sense; and it is a truism that we are all defined in part by the music that we love - and as musicians, in part by the music that we perform. And so, the character of these pieces - from philosophical and serious to fun to romantic - are themselves traits that help you to define yourself as a whole person?

RC: Exactly. Sometimes artists record CDs that are all of one cloth - all romances for the violin, or all Mozart sonatas. But for this first CD, I wanted a program that would be "me" - and that's why I chose this particular set of works.

NG: There is one particular choice that I found quite interesting - and that is the Bach "Chaconne". As you say in your letter, this is a very humbling piece to confront. It's certainly a very mature work, and indeed rather philosophical in its grandeur and depth of feeling. Can you talk about your approach to this work - when did you start playing it, what kind of research did you do in preparation, in terms of performance practice and ornamentation, etc.; and is this something that you worked on expressly with your teachers, notably Aaron Rosand at Curtis?

RC: It was full of reverence that I approached the "Chaconne". I did not even attempt to learn this piece until about two years ago; I had earlier played every other movement from the six sonatas and partitas [for solo violin, BWV, 1001-1006], but was saving the "Chaconne" until I felt ready. If you'd asked me even two years ago if I would record it for my first album, I would have said, "No way!" But by the time the CD repertoire was being selected, I was in fact confident enough to include it - confident enough to think that I had something individual and unique to bring to the piece.

As for preparation, I always feel that it is necessary to understand the time-period in which the composer lived, and the challenges that he went through in his lifetime. Bach, for example, had so many mouths to feed, having 13 children, or something like that [Bach had 7 children with his first wife, Maria Barbara, 4 of whom survived to adulthood; he then had 13 more children with his second wife, Anna Magdalena, 6 of whom survived into adulthood]; he was a God-fearing man and incredibly hard-working. To understand the ornaments, it helps to understand the architecture of the time, and a bit about the general society - and to try to picture yourself within it. One amazing experience I had was visiting the Thomaskirche [St. Thomas Church, in Leipzig, Germany, where Bach was choir director from 1723 to his death in 1750]; it brought me to tears just to be there. So, all of this helps; of course, one could just play the piece from the notes alone, but if I want to be a conduit for the composer, I feel like I have to undergo this fuller type of preparation

NG: It sounds as if your preparation for the Bach is a metaphor for your approach to repertoire generally - that you need to feel a connection to the composer via your own life experience, as in your visit to the Thomaskirche in Leipzig. It's also interesting to learn that you had previously played all the movements of the solo sonatas and partitas except the "Chaconne" - and yet this is the one movement you present to the world. I assume that at some point in the future you'll plan on returning to the full Partita in D minor, as well as to the other sonatas and partitas?

RC: Absolutely - as soon as I'm ready, I'll want to record all six, like [violinists] Nathan Milstein and Henryk Szeryng. Every serious violinist does all six, I think.

NG: Now, the other grand and quite mature work on the program is the Franck Violin Sonata - which was written shortly before his death. As you note in your letter, it's a tremendous work and a staple of the repertoire. It's well known that Franck wrote it as a wedding gift for his friend, the great violinist-composer Eugène Ysaÿe; but in your letter you point to a very specific narrative, as you mentioned earlier in our conversation - that the four movements follow through a human life-cycle: 1st movement as youth; 2nd movement as young adulthood; 3rd movement as middle age; and the 4th as "old and on the brink". I haven't seen this interpretation elsewhere - from what did you derive it?

RC: My teacher, Aaron Rosand, told this to me; he studied with [violinist and famed pedagogue, Leon] Sametini, who studied under Ysaÿe - and who [according to Rosand] may have been one of his illegitimate sons. Sametini has Ysaÿe's original manuscripts, and I think this narrative follows in Ysaÿe's traditions of interpreting the Franck Sonata.

NG: Interesting; I don't believe this is widely known - again, the commonly discussed narrative is that it is a wedding gift, where the Finale, especially, brings out the joyful spirit of the wedding celebration. I'm sure that you used this interpretation to bring expression and coherence to your performance - and indeed you play it with great depth and understanding. In fact, it made me think how well you'd record the Brahms violin sonatas - which I assume you plan on doing at some point as well?

RC: Yes, they're among my absolute favorites! But to play Brahms requires great maturity; I don't think I'm ready for that yet.

NG: I'd think that if you can do the "Chaconne" from the Bach's D minor Partita, you could also perform Brahms quite well; but, certainly, you have to wait until you feel that you're ready.

RC: Yes, because a recording sticks around forever - it's not like a performance; it goes down in history.

NG: Yes, I've had many artists who I interviewed make that same statement: you have to be careful when you put something down in recording, because it's always going to be out there, for better or worse.

RC: Absolutely.

NG: One other thing that you focus on in this disc - as in the video promo [see attached] - is your violin tone. I read in an interview you did after you won the Menuhin Competition in 2008 that among your favorite parts of the experience in Wales was playing the Stradavarius that was exhibited by [violin dealer and collector] Christophe Landon; you noted how struck you were by its wonderful tone, and how you tried to emulate it on the violin you were playing at the time. Following your triumphs there and at the Queen Elizabeth, you've been able to play regularly on two different Stradavarius - the "Huggins" and the "Macmillan" - which I'm sure is a thrill. At the same time, you talk about the need to create your own unique sound - in the "grand tradition", as you say. Why is it so important to you to have your own unique sound, and what specifically are you doing in your playing - and your listening - to help you to generate that?

RC: Well, first of all, just for the record, I no longer have two Strads - I gave one back; nobody needs two Strads, especially when you don't own them [laughs]. Today, I exclusively play on the 1721 "Macmillan" Stradavarius - though I recorded the Sony album with both of them; the Nippon Foundation loaned the "Huggins" to me, but they have lots of violinists on their waiting list, so it made sense to return it.

With regard to tone, my teacher, Aaron Rosand, is one of the forerunners in placing heavy emphasis on the uniqueness of one's sound; it's very important - I mean, why would one want to sound like another person? I actually feel that these days many violinists sound alike, and you often can't tell who it is just by listening to a CD. Back in the day, when [Jascha] Heifetz, Milstein, and [Fritz] Kreisler were playing, you could immediately tell who it was - not just by the tone, but also in the style of playing. It's just like a singer - every singer is unique in their own sound and the way they interpret the music, and I think some of today's violinists have lost a bit of that - and I'm trying to bring it back. One specific example is that I don't use a shoulder rest - which became popular only in the late 20th century, and helps make the sound very generic. But when you don't use the shoulder rest, it's more personal, and the instrument is closer to you. I used one until I was 16 years old; but then I came to Curtis, where Aaron Rosand discouraged its use. At first, I took it off because I wanted to please my teacher, but soon I discovered how much better it is: the vibrations go from the violin directly through your body, instead of through a shoulder rest - so it's a much more personal experience, and that's one of the first steps toward creating a unique sound.

NG: And aside from this change in technique, what have you found useful in terms of creating your own unique sound or timbre - so that, indeed, fifty years from now, people will hear a Ray Chen recording, and instantly know it's you?

RC: When it comes to creating a violin tone, I just try to be myself - meaning, that it has to be natural and reflect who I am as a person. I believe that your personality should show through in your playing, and this won't happen if you're trying to play or sound like someone else.

NG: Certainly, this is something that all great artists aspire to; one thinks too about top jazz musicians - where you can immediately tell that it's John Coltrane on tenor sax, as opposed to Stan Getz, etc. Now, creating a distinct violin tone is related to considering the violinists you most admire - those who have been guides to you in developing not only your tone and technique, but in creating the kind of career that you'd like to see for yourself; clearly your teacher, Aaron Rosand, has been a major inspiration. Are there any other violinists that you credit as being models for you?

RC: Well, I have to say that I'm a very old-school kind of guy; and the players I mentioned, like Heifetz, Milstein, and [David] Oistrakh - these are my absolute favorites. I don't know what it is, but I'm just not drawn to the style of playing of those active today. But with this older generation, you can hear their personalities in their playing; Heifetz, for example, was what you could call a "confident" guy: people would say to him, "Oh, your violin sounds so beautiful!" But he would pull out the violin from the case, give it a rattle, and say, "Funny, I don't hear anything!" It may seem a bit pretentious, perhaps, but he was clearly sure of himself - and you can hear that in his playing. And Kreisler, from his playing, you can just tell he was a charming, nice guy; he spent some time at Curtis - there's a photo of him swimming at a nearby lake.

NG: And you get to connect with him through his many wonderful violin arrangements, such as with the Tartini, as well as his original violin works. Well, clearly Curtis is doing a great job of producing a wonderful new generation of violinists, such as yourself, and Hilary Hahn, among many others, I'm sure.

And speaking of being part of a new generation, this came clear to me as I was reading through some of your blog postings. For example, when you wrote about your hope that the audience about to hear your Berlin performance of the Glazunov Violin Concerto would relish "in it's awesomeness", and find it hard to resist the "face-melting gloriousness." Clearly, you are speaking to a particular generation.

RC: [laughs] I have to say that it's not just for one particular generation - it's for anyone who wants to read it. I'm glad, actually, to know that you've read it - and that it's not just my mother who reads my blog!

NG: Well, it's certainly part of our present day that via blogs and other forms of social media, artists have a way of communicating directly with their audience that never existed before. It's not just when a camera is on them, or someone is interviewing them that they have a direct link to their fans - and clearly, you are taking advantage of that.

In these days, when there's lots of hand wringing going on about the future of classical music, am I right to assume that you are pretty optimistic in this regard? And now, given your new "star status", I'm wondering if you imagine yourself taking on a more active role in helping to bring classical music to a younger generation?

RC: I can understand the concern about classical music's future, but I also am confident about it; young people listen to pop music and their favorite bands, but when they grow older, they lose interest, and they will often turn to classical music - and in this way, education is a very big part of growing an audience.

And yes, absolutely, I do want to become an ambassador of classical music for young people. I think of Itzhak Perlman, when he was on Sesame Street, for example. Another person who is doing this right now is [pianist] Lang Lang, with his [International Music] Foundation - working with children, and showing them that classical music is fun and "cool". We need more people like that who are willing to reach out, since I believe that it's important that classical music not be stuck in an ivory tower clique, or have a snobbish air to it; it should be accessible to everyone. People may not understand it at first, but give them time - educate them, not in a condescending way, but through outreach programs. Hopefully we can do more than just keep it alive; hopefully we can increase the audience!

NG: It's great to hear you say that - the world needs more classical music ambassadors! I had the pleasure of interviewing Lang Lang, and we talked about his Foundation and the great success he's been having in increasing the number of children who are studying piano; similarly, I spoke with your fellow-Sony artist Simone Dinnerstein, who is advocating in a different way, by organizing performances at the public school [Brooklyn, New York's PS321] where her son is a student - so there's no shortage of opportunities. As a charismatic and high profile soloist, you'll have plenty of chances to impact large numbers of people, and I'm sure that you'll put them to good use.

So, as we wrap up, I'm hoping you can share with us what's coming up on the docket for you. I know that you have a number of concerts planned, to promote your new album - in the States, in Europe, and in your native Australia. I saw that you were going to make your first concerto recording, with Daniel Harding and the Swedish Radio Orchestra; is that going to be of the Glazunov Concerto in all of its "awesomeness"?

RC: No, we're recording the Mendelssohn and Tchaikovsky concertos; I know that there are plenty of recordings out there of these two; but again, I think that I have something new to offer. I won the Menuhin Competition with the Mendelssohn, and I won the Queen Elizabeth with the Tchaikovsky, and so these two are very close to my heart. I'm also interested in doing new works - which is something I'm asked about a lot. But it's difficult for a young artist to immediately turn to projects like that - one needs to establish oneself first before promoting more individual things.

NG: Sure, and I'm sure you'll soon be in a position to create your own unique projects, even if they might be a bit outside the norm. And have you thought about what your next non-orchestral recording might be, or is that too far in the future to think about?

RC: The next two recordings that are planned are both with orchestra. After that, I'd like to do a sonata program - or who knows, maybe I'll be ready to record more Bach, or do something contemporary: I have a close connection with [contemporary Chinese composer] Tan Dun, and were both look forward to working together, so maybe it'll be something like that.

NG: Well, as I always say, there's no shortage of good material - both existing and soon-to-be existing; and we'll look forward to seeing what surprises come our way.

Finally, I wanted to ask you about another of your blog posts, a "meaningless rant", as you called it - where you lamented your lack of having a PA, a personal assistant, to answer your phone calls, and get you coffee, even though you don't drink it! So, how is this long-term goal coming along - are you any closer to getting a PA?

RC: Actually, I do now have an e-assistant - I think that's the technical term; basically, it's an online assistant, someone who does email and things like that. It's a friend of mine, someone I've known for a few years: she read that same blog post and said, "I'd be happy to help you." She's in London now, so it's just online help - I also have other folks help me with my travel arrangements, and my manager handles a lot of other stuff, so what's left is generally silly things, like "Is it worth getting TiVo, or should I stick to Direct TV?" [laughs] - and stuff like that.

NG: Well, that's what a good PA is all about - helping you make those tricky life decisions.

RC: Exactly. But seriously, that was a "meaningless" rant - and I should probably post another one, since I've had a few other people offer their services, to say, "Thanks, everyone - I have a personal assistant now!"

NG: Well, this certainly is one way to gauge where you are in your career; and I'm glad for you that you have one, even if it's of the "e" variety. Well, thanks much for your time, Ray - it's been great to talk with you.

RC: Likewise - thank you very much!

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