Wednesday, November 16, 2016

Ray Chen Conquers San Francisco

The 27-year-old Taiwanese-Australian violinist Ray Chen was the guest soloist and conductor for the New Century Chamber Orchestra last weekend, and he was the most musically exciting violinist I have heard live since the great Christian Tetzlaff.

The beautifully balanced program was early Mozart (the Diviertimento in F Major and the Violin Concerto #3), early Britten (Variations on a theme of Frank Bridge), and Elgar (Introduction and Allegro for Strings).

Mozart’s music is tricky. It can be sublime or daintily inert, depending on the performers. From the first notes of the Divertimento, it was obvious Chen loved and understood the composer, and he lead the string orchestra in a lively reading of the score filled with feeling.

Britten’s 10-movement Variations was written in 1937 in honor of his beloved composing teacher, Frank Bridge, and it’s a strange, characteristically brilliant piece. On his YouTube site, Chen noted that this would be his first outing as a conductor, and if the extraordinary performance by the ensemble was any indication, he should do more of it.

The Mozart Violin Concerto #3 was given an achingly beautiful performance, reminding me a bit of violinist Stuart Canin who founded the New Century Chamber Orchestra 25 years ago. There was the same crispness infused with emotional expression which is a difficult balance to achieve. Chen was also great fun to watch while performing, not really dancing around the stage so much as vibrating across it, with energy that seemed to communicate itself to the entire string orchestra. The Elgar Introduction and Allegro sounded as if a group three times the size of the NCCO was playing, which could partly be on account of the seriously improved acoustics of Herbst Theatre after its redesign this year, but also because the group was playing as well as I have ever heard them.

Chen came back for an encore with a fun riff on Satie’s Gymnopedie by cellist Stephan Koncz from the Made in Berlin quartet where Chen also plays (click here for a link). It was borderline kitsch but thoroughly entertaining, which is what all encores should be. Chen is also a social media champ with his own YouTube channel hosting videos targeting young people who might be interested in classical music. He has just posted a very entertaining installment, Ray Chen Tries Chinese Food & Busking in San Francisco, which goes from a Yank Sing dim sum brunch to a self-deprecating attempt at busking in Japantown (click here to check it out). According to the video, this was Chen’s first trip to San Francisco, and may he return often. He’s one of the most charming, musically soulful performers I have seen in years, and I hope that NCCO brings him back soon.

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