Monday, February 17, 2014


Cleveland Museum of Art
February 12

Chen and Elizalde at a peformance in Washington, DC.

The last time we saw Ray Chen, he was at Blossom Music Center, whipping The Four Seasons into a frenzy under the benevolent baton of Jahja Ling. If his performance was less than meticulous, it was balanced by bravura technical skills and the cheerful enthusiasm that the violinist brings to his performances. Those same traits energized his recital last week with pianist Julio Elizalde in a program better-suited to Chen’s style and strengths.

At the tender age of 24, Chen is a darling in both the classical music and fashion worlds. A prodigy who started playing at the age of four, he studied at Curtis and won two prestigious competitions (Yehudi Menuhin, 2008 and Queen Elisabeth, 2009) before launching onto the international performing circuit. Chen has performed at high-profile events like the opening of the 1998 Winter Olympics in Nagano, Japan, the 2012 Nobel Prize concert in Stockholm, and at Fashion Week in Milan last year, where he played Paganini backstage for Giorgio Armani, who is a friend and supporter.

Chen took the stage at CMA last week with the second Stradivarius to come through Cleveland in less than a week, a rare treat for lovers of fine instruments. His does not have the golden sound of Gil Shaham’s, but it does have a very pure and elegant tone that matches Chen’s style and wardrobe.

He and Elizalde opened with a pro forma rendition of Mozart’s Sonata for Violin and Piano in A major (K.305). Chen mentioned after the piece that it was the first time they were performing together in 2014, and it sounded like it. The music was well-informed and technically precise, but it came across as two people playing with each other rather than together, with a tight organic sound. The audience certainly didn’t mind, applauding eagerly after the first movement. Perhaps future programs should contain instructions on concert etiquette.

Chen confessed to his love for “showpieces” before diving into a trio of Sarasate works, which provided plenty of opportunity for showing off. Chen is too open and self-effacing in his running conversations with the audience to come across as arrogant, but he has a streak of guitar hero in him. So he revels in a piece like the Habanera (Op, 21, No. 2), which is basically a series of effects that call for flashy fingering and fancy bowing, executed by Chen with zest and flair. (Cue the applause again!)

The slower Playera was the first piece that suggested Chen might have some expression to go with his formidable technical skills. The work is dramatic, bordering on tortured at times, and sounded good with Chen adding some emotional ballast. Zigeunerweisen (Gypsy Airs) (Op. 20. No. 1) is even more melodramatic and blazingly fast, which gave both players an opportunity to fly through some dazzling finger work. Chen is so quick that he was running ahead of Elizalde by the end, commanding the spotlight in true guitar hero fashion.

The second half of the program got serious with Beethoven’s Sonata for Violin and Piano No. 9 in A major, more popularly known as the “Kreutzer Sonata.” Chen and Elizalde had clearly worked on this piece, playing it with an intense focus and unified sound, giving the music character. Elizalde finally had a chance to show some color and lyricism in the solo piano passages, and Chen attacked his part, giving it the grandest possible proportions. If their performance was not an entirely persuasive statement about being serious musicians, it left no doubt about two first-rate talents who will only get better with seasoning.

And who could not be charmed by the duo quickly coming back for an encore that Chen introduced by saying, “We’re going to do more Sarasate, if that’s okay.” It was quite okay with the delirious audience, which Chen held in his hand with fiery runs and leaps to take the high notes even higher...just like a rock star. If this is what it takes to pump new life into classical music and bring in younger fans, then put on the Armani, pull out the Strad, and let’s go.

For more on Ray Chen:

And a peek backstage at Milan Fashion Week:

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