Saturday, 26 March 2011

One to Watch: Violinist Ray Chen

Chen's CD released in January
Last night after work I went to City Hall Concert Hall to watch the Hong Kong debut of Ray Chen, a Taiwanese-born Australian violinist.

But first -- the first part of the concert.

Yip Wing-sie is still going strong as the city's only female conductor of the Hong Kong Sinfonietta which went professional in 1999. She gave a good introduction in Chinese and English explaining that every year the Sinfonietta participates in the Hong Kong Arts Festival, it commissions a piece by a local composer, and invites a young up-and-coming Asian performer to play with the orchestra.

The commissioned piece was by Tang Lok-yin, called Visage which has its world premiere. Yip gave a hint to to the audience to think of images of the brightly coloured masks used in Peking opera when listening to the music. As someone who is not too familiar with contemporary music, it seemed like things were out of tune or not in time, but did evoke the Peking opera stage with lots of percussion. The piece ended with one of the horns blowing air sound like a whispering cloud.

Tang then rushed to the stage and thanked the orchestra for playing her piece. It's quite brave for the Hong Kong Sinfonietta to commission pieces, but it also shows support for local artists and makes it more community oriented.

The next piece was Bela Bartok's Divertimento for String Orchestra in three movements, and only the string section was on stage. It was a robust piece with hints of Hungarian folk songs in it, typical of Bartok. Early on in the piece, there was something wrong with concert master James Cuddeford's violin and he switched violins with his colleague who quietly walked off stage. He came back after the first movement was over and returned the violin to Cuddeford who had to play a few solos in the piece.

Chen's earlier publicity photo
After a break the stage was set for Chen. He looked different from his publicity photo and his hair in dire need of a haircut. Nevertheless, he was dressed up in tails and was ready to perform Tchaikovsky's Violin Concerto in D, Op. 35. It seems Chen was very eager to show off his technical skills which he did very well, and it made me wonder why all young performers chose technically difficult pieces early in their career. Perhaps it's an easy way to establish themselves as a star, Lang Lang case in point, who has since moved onto more thoughtful works.

And that's my feeling about Chen -- he's definitely a diamond in the rough and while technically mastering the piece there wasn't that much depth in showing his passion for the music. Nevertheless, we all sat there so quiet that a pin could drop while he performed his solos throughout the three movements. And in the end the audience clapped non stop for him until he finally did an encore with the Paganini Caprice No. 24 in A minor, again a skillful display.

When I attended concerts in Beijing, at the end women in uniforms would walk up on stage with bouquets of flowers and it would have been appropriate here for Chen to have received one, but none was had.

Chen's more recent photo
After the concert he was supposed to autograph CDs and posters and I didn't stick around for that and instead headed to the Mandarin coffee shop for a bite to eat. After finishing my reuben sandwich and reading the paper, a giant entourage arrived and it included Chen who had changed into a T-shirt with a jacket and jeans carrying his 1721 "Macmillan" Stradivarius and a bottle of water.

He didn't know the people he was with, but they seemed to be wealthy arts patrons. They all congratulated him on his performance to which he humbly thanked them in his Aussie accent.

Chen is definitely one to watch in the future and hopefully he grows into a mature and gracious artist.

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