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Ludwig Van
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INTERVIEW | Violinist Ray Chen Talks About Repertoire, Violins, And His Rock Star Reputation

By Hye Won Cecilia Lee on November 4, 2019

Australian violinist Ray Chen talks about his approach to classical music, his favourite instruments, and repertoire in advance of his Toronto concert with pianist Julio Elizalde.

Violinist Ray Chen
Violinist Ray Chen (Photo courtesy of raychenviolin.com)

Ray Chen says he has to carve his own path as a soloist in today’s classical music arena despite its history and legacy, and his bright presence has created a rock star following across the globe. “You know, I’m just being myself, to be honest,” says the violinist/social media expert, who has 191k followers on Instagram at raychenviolin, 89.4K subscribers on Youtube at Ray Chen, and 20k followers on Twitter at @raychenviolin. Whenever Ray’s name comes up, his young fans can almost instantaneously recall a few memorable posts — whether it’s about direct interaction, like Play with Ray at the Hollywood Bowl, or a shared post with the (in)famous Two Set Violins. “I feel that classical music as an industry, for so long, had a certain set of expectations, which has led the industry to have certain stereotypes,” says Ray.

Since winning the Yehudi Menuhin (2008) and Queen Elizabeth (2009) competitions, Ray has sought out ways to connect directly and deeply with the audience, trying to reach beyond the classical aficionados, and his robust social media following reflects the great appeal he has created as ambassador of classical music. “People who had careers before, say 2008, (though it’s relatively close, just about ten years ago) — it was a different approach. But after the financial crash and everything, it shook things up, and people felt that they needed the change. That made a real impact to the industry, and for myself and for others who started their careers after that, we had to invent a new way to present ourselves.”

Feeling that he can no longer simply walk on to stage, take a bow, play and leave, Ray decided that there has to be something more, and the most important objective he chose was to connect with people. So Ray focused on delivering on all these questions — how does he practice? Can he play concertos? What about chamber music? “People want to know more and consume more. Soon as you bring someone who is young, fresh and does things in a slightly different way — even just having an online presence, on top of being young, I think that’s enough for people to say ‘oh yeah, he’s a rock star!’”

Being an Asian — that was another variable Ray had to look at: “There are many Asians in the industry, but there aren’t that many Asian soloists, so that one path to make it, you have to carve your own path — I had to be creative, I had to be unique.”

Crossing the world regularly with a varying repertoire of concertos, chamber music and occasional visits back home to Australia, Ray wants to share the great gift of classical music, as he sees its value beyond the niche audience. “Classical music was created and composed with something much bigger than any of us, and there’s something worthy of exploring in what we do,” Ray says. “We play old music, but it is very real, with almost a religious sense — I don’t know if that’s the right term, but there is depth, and that’s what attracts people. When people start to experience depth, not something superficial, which is less and less available in society, that’s what creates a current resurgence in classical music — there’s very few mediums that have it.”

On this North American tour, Ray and pianist Julio Elizalde, are playing in San Francisco, Los Angeles, Toronto (November 8, 2019, Koerner Hall) and Houston, with a mixed repertoire of Grieg and Saint-Saëns Sonatas, a solo Bach selection, Debussy (arr. Roelens) and Ravel’s Tzigane. LvT caught up with Ray for a quick chat in between the moves, in South Korea.

Violinist Ray Chen
Violinist Ray Chen (Photo : John Mac)

You’ve chosen the less-familiar repertoire of Grieg and Saint-Saëns for the tour. What compelled you to choose these sonatas?

You are right, they don’t get played often, but the Grieg is such a wonderful piece and I always choose pieces that I really like, and that’s the beauty of choosing repertoire for a recital, and even for concertos — when I play with orchestra — they will sometimes suggest something that I don’t like or don’t play, then I’m like: no thanks… find another person, not because I don’t want to learn something new: often times, I will learn something new for particular occasions, but I feel like in classical music, there’s some weird stuff — just like every genre, and I think myself as, I’m the guy — if you don’t go to classical concerts usually, I want to be your first positive experience… I don’t have to be like, I’m here to play Beethoven and Mozart. People may not have heard of Grieg or Saint-Saens, but hopefully after this, it will pique their curiosity — I haven’t heard that before, maybe I will give it a go! Even if they don’t like that, it’s like oh, maybe I will try again, because there was that one time — a bit like one positive experience over two negatives.

Seems that reaching out and broadening the perspective of your audience, and the future potential audience interests you greatly.

I want people to come to the concert hall and think, wow, that was actually really cool, it was really exciting, maybe I will go again! I want to be that kind of ambassador for classical music. If you come and — like if you never had Japanese food, and never had raw-anything, and you are suddenly given raw slimy things, then you think whoa, maybe not! That person may be turned off, even if it was incredibly fresh and high quality. They aren’t ready for that. People have to go on their own pace and I feel like there is still a way — I mean, I don’t want to be like McDonald’s of classical music, but there’s a way to strike a balance to provide people with pieces they haven’t heard of.

So there is a greater process in playing and listening to this old, surviving classical music repertoire?

Everyone who is playing the violin starts with classical. It’s just how it is, like piano, for example, and then you develop your technique then you decide whether you want to be a classical musician, or a music producer, or whatever you want to be — It is really interesting because we all come from the same source, and I feel that in classical music, we stay true to the composers: Bach, Beethoven, Mozart, these names, and we continue play these pieces. We develop this obsession — a continual search for the truth, in a sense, to get closer to that truth, from these composers and what it means.

Many violinists are happy to talk about their instruments, and there’s a certain prestige given to older, say, Italian instruments. Can you tell a bit about your current instrument? Do you nerd-out on gear?

I know most violinists — especially soloists — talk about their instruments and that’s very cool and everything: I play on a 1715 Joachim Stradivarius, but I also like my other instruments as well. I like switching things around. From the perspective of the average person who is studying and playing the violin, like ‘Oh, so-and-so playing on a Strad,’ that’s good for him or her, but I feel like that while it does teach you a lot about sound, I think these older instruments, in a sound production-sense, it’s bit like an EQ box that already has a certain set of EQ set in.

Do you find modern instruments particularly interesting?

When you have a modern violin — a modern box — it’s open, and it hasn’t been set yet, so you get to go in and you have to set it yourself — every note. Over the course of decades and decades, like Strad — that’s over 300 years old, until EQ is literally carved into the wood. And then that’s when it becomes set. It’s a bit like ‘wind carving the stone.’ Like wind can carve stone, the vibration can carve wood over a few hundred years. That’s why I think certain instruments sounds the way they do. That’s the way I look at it.

You started playing the violin at age 4. Do you remember much of life before violin?

I can’t remember as it’s all quite blurred, but I do remember things like playing on a toy drum, and talking to my dad, as he was always travelling for business, and waiting for him at the airport. My mom was with me in Australia. I remember dad coming back, and talking to people on the phone. And for some reason, I had this weird thing, where I was deathly afraid of… there’s this word 老板,Laoban, the ‘boss,’ and I don’t know why, but I was super scared of this imaginary figure. I think it was because I was so mischievous as a kid, so I would be playing and messing around in the restaurant, and my mom would be like ‘if you keep doing that, the manager’s going to come!’ and I would be like ‘Arrrgh!’

Violinist Ray Chen
Violinist Ray Chen (Photo : John Mac)

Perhaps a bit like Santa who watches all the time?

Kind of, but Santa’s just watching, and you think oh I was not good today, but I could be good tomorrow, you know, but this was like ‘oh no, the manager’s coming NOW.’ I still don’t know why.

Often children have the wildest dreams. When you were young, what other dreams did you have, or did you know that you wanted to be a violinist?

Yeah, I couldn’t pursue my other dreams though, because one was to become Batman, and the other one was to become a pirate. So, I had to… becoming a violin soloist was the third option.

You remember waiting for your dad. I suppose now they wait for you at the airport?

Actually, yeah. I was recently in Brisbane, Australia, for a concert, and I’m sometimes — you know, all my friends seem to think that I’m someone who is on top of everything, and usually I am, but this particular time, I messed up and I forgot to check my schedule, so two weeks ago, he was on his way to the airport, and I thought, oh, great, it’s my dad picking me up, and the reality hasn’t caught up with me yet, and this suited chauffeur with a sign with my name on it comes up to me and asked ‘Are you Ray Chen? I am your driver,’ and I am like ‘Oooh…. Oooh no! Dad, don’t come to the airport!’

That is quite funny. A bit of Ray in real life.

I really feel that this is very much me, that there are two versions of me. There’s that Ray Chen, that people say as ‘rock star,’ that soloist, that someone who’s up there, then there’s me, the actual me, including that young me, scared of this imaginary thing, and I feel like everyone’s on the other side: oh my god, he knows everything, everything that he says is so awesome, then in reality, there’s that other side, oh my gosh, what am I doing, but somehow, these two sides are really — this is why people are complex beings, you get this — somehow it’s worked out, as if it’s only that other side, I would become unrelatable. Sometimes everyone feels like they don’t know what they are doing sometimes, right?

What are some things that you enjoy, especially when you are on the road?

I love video games. That’s my ultimate go-to. I always carry my Nintendo Switch with me everywhere, and I’m really into this game which is a little competitive, Super Smash Bros, and I watch Netflix. There have been some really good ones — like Peaky Blinders, and Black Mirror’s really huge, and I read a bit — though everything’s on iBook, as I don’t really have space for actual books when I’m travelling. And all that social media — and managing my career, it’s quite full.

Any particular music you like listening to?

In my spare time, I don’t really listen to classical, I need a break even from the things that I love — I listen to a variety of things, literally anything, from Queen to Radiohead to… to anything like Ed Sheeran, Ariana Grande, literally everything. It depends on the mood that you are in. You want some hype music? Then you go to the party playlist. Sometimes I will just — everything’s on Spotify and Apple music, so when I’m running, I want to listen to running music, which is set at my pace, so I have this running playlist that I set, like at 95-110 BPM, at my running pace — warm up and running fast, so I constructed that. And if I’m on holiday, I might listen to some Hawaiian music.

Have you been to Toronto? What was it like?

I’ve been to Toronto a couple of times: my last time would’ve been with TSO 17/18, and I think that was my second time. I personally love the city. It reminds me of Australia: I think Toronto and Melbourne are quite similar, so I enjoy that — and there are certain Canadian cities that remind me of Australia, like Vancouver reminds me of Brisbane, strange, but that’s the way I feel and I really enjoy that. I feel that Australians and Canadians are quite similar, and I enjoy the people. I went to the aquarium the last time, and it was really cool, and went to Tim Horton’s for breakfast — things to do in Toronto! I went to the markets too. But this time, I feel a bit rushed, because we are on larger recital tours.

Ray Chen with Julio Elizalde, 08 November 2019, 8pm at Koerner Hall. Details here.

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Hye Won Cecilia Lee
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Hye Won Cecilia Lee

Cecilia tumbled into 'serious' music study when she decided to avoid attending medical school. Currently working in the field of classical music, recording, and Korean-English interpretation, she tends to get her nose dirty in many different things in the city. Cecilia holds a DMA in Piano Performance from the University of Nebraska-Lincoln.
Hye Won Cecilia Lee
Follow me
Hye Won Cecilia Lee
Follow me

Hye Won Cecilia Lee

Cecilia tumbled into 'serious' music study when she decided to avoid attending medical school. Currently working in the field of classical music, recording, and Korean-English interpretation, she tends to get her nose dirty in many different things in the city. Cecilia holds a DMA in Piano Performance from the University of Nebraska-Lincoln.
Hye Won Cecilia Lee
Follow me
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