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On the Rise

by B.A. Nilsson on May 4, 2011

Ray Chen
Union College Concert Series, Memorial Chapel, April 27

Where’s your backbone, people? I’m talking to you, the audience at Ray Chen’s dazzling recital last week. The violinist finished with a Wieniawski finger-buster that spewed wicked spiccato, left-hand pizzicato, harmonics true and false and other virtuoso hallmarks, a spectacular finish to an astounding program. You leapt to your feet, applauding madly, and Chen and pianist Andrew Tyson returned and bowed and returned and bowed again.

Then Chen pulled a fast one: He played a slow one, “Melodie” by Gluck, a Fritz Kreisler arrangement of a flute tune from Orfeo ed Euridice. It’s a beautiful display of violin tone and interpretive gentleness, but, as an encore, it does more than that. It calms the audience, robbing them of the furor that the finger-buster provoked.

And you applauded, albeit in a more restrained manner, and even before they were offstage after their second set of bows that time, you packed up your hands and toddled home.

Look, folks. You’re in charge here, not a 22-year-old violinist. He’s a kid, for crying out loud! He could have played all night—if you’d insisted. I’m sure they had more encores up their sleeves. You thought that Wieniawski piece, his Variations on an Original Theme, was amazing? If you’d tried hard enough you might have been able to get Bazzini’s “Round of the Goblins” out of them. You never know—unless you try!

Do you think you’re going to see Ray Chen again at this price and in this intimate a space? Union College’s Memorial Chapel is the perfect hall for a violin recital, and the program was shrewdly chosen as the finish to the 39th concert series there. But Chen is a hot item. Obviously. He’s headed for solo appearances with the major orchestras and recitals on much costlier stages. We want him to feel sentimental about Schenectady and come back again for a reasonable fee. We want him to think, “That’s the place that loves me so much they didn’t want to let me go.”

He couldn’t have been more charming. Thanks to a scheduling glitch, the program announced a Brahms sonata where Chen had prepared a different one. “We’ll be playing the Franck sonata,” he said, which drew applause. “Are you clapping because you think I said Frank Sinatra? No, it’s the Franck sonata.”

And it was, and it was brilliantly performed. It’s a warhorse and thus runs the risk of being overplayed, but it rewarded the dynamic partnership of Chen and pianist Andrew Tyson, whose consonance in the opening movement set the stage for the quarrels of the second. The wispy third movement comes across as a series of questions with languorous answers, giving way to an autumnal finale that builds in intensity and finished with a virtuoso flourish.

That was also on display in the opening work, Tartini’s “Devil’s Trill” sonata, the two fast sections of which send the fiddler’s fingers into the controlled spasms that give the piece its sobriquet. As if to justify playing the piece without the ornamentation that has crept in via historically informed performance scholarship, Chen chose arch-romantic Fritz Kreisler’s version, which adds a challenging cadenza.

The program nearly duplicates what’s on Chen’s debut recording, a centerpiece of which is Bach’s Chaconne, a set of variations with astonishing contrasts of tone and style. Although I could quarrel with some of Chen’s interpretive choices for this unaccompanied work—I don’t like the tempo deviations he put in for dramatic purposes—the performance had the authority you expect from performers who’ve been in the trenches far longer.

Then came the Wieniawski pieces that finished the concert: a saltarelle (not on the CD) that Chen took at a lively clip, never missing a challenge, and then the Variations on an Original Theme, which uses the almost comical device of separating its virtuoso episodes with a brief piano flourish. Not only was it a rip-roaring end to an incredible concert, but also an early glimpse of a talent who is destined to conquer this field.