BY WENDY ZHANG
Ray Chen Performs Mendelssohn’s Violin Concerto
Sydney Symphony Orchestra, 21 August
After nearly three years of COVID lockdown and restrictions, Ray Chen returned to Australia to perform Mendelssohn’s Violin Concerto in E minor (Op. 64), together with New Zealand conductor Gemma New and the Sydney Symphony Orchestra. Ray’s performance was full of passion, character, and charm, and the encore piece Waltzing Matilda truly brought him and us in the audience home.
The concert opened with contemporary Tasmanian composer Maria Grenfell’s piece Clockwerk, which according to the pre-concert talk drew its influence from Bach’s Brandenburg Concertos as well as the music of Béla Bartók. It was written in lydian mode, and the opening sounded agitated, unsettled with a hint of nervous excitement, as if waiting for an adventure to start. First violinist Andrew Haveron was superb in taking the lead to play the main theme, followed by violins, cellos, and double basses. The interesting thing about this piece was that it went through many different keys in a fast pace, like going through a musical rollercoaster, and ended abruptly with all strings played in unison under the guide of Gemma New – a brilliant ending.
After a short interval, Ray Chen, donning a black gown, confidently walked onto the stage, picked up a packet from an audience member who handed it to him from the front row (a gift, I assume?), put it in his pocket, and started the Violin Concerto without a pause. Judging by the young fans coming to see his concert, it was apparent that Ray has enjoyed an overwhelming success in social media, with more than 300k followers on Instagram. But that did not mean he wasn’t taking his performance career seriously — on the contrary, his social media success complemented his performance career and may have expanded his fans and promoted classical music to a non-traditional demographic of concertgoers.
On the stage, Ray grabbed our attention straight away with a fiery opening. It was true that he had played this piece many times before, but still showed the passion, emotions, and raw authenticity as though it were his first time playing. When he played the solo, he took his time, fully focused and immersed in music – making each note exquisite and expressive, and that resonated with me.
Throughout the first movement, Ray explored a full range of dynamics and emotions, enhanced by the much-improved acoustics of the new Sydney Opera House concert hall, resulting in rich and stunning sounds the audience seemed to enjoy.
The third movement was a scherzo movement — and my favourite. Ray’s performance was playful as he smiled and changed his posture and facial expressions to suit the tone of the movement. The orchestra kept up with him despite the fast speed he was leading. The bassoonist, in particular, corresponded in an expressive way.
Ray’s use of whole-body movement and facial expression was a signature of his playing. He used his body to help him express music – leaning forward and backward constantly, and stomping on the ground to support himself in expressing the music. His facial expressions corresponded to the emotion he tried to express – smiling in fast movements, and changing to more intense frowning and focused expressions in slower, more contemplative movements. He was certainly not shy in performing his music through his body and face.
After the piece ended, the audience erupted into thunderous applause, with many giving a standing ovation. After many rounds of bowing, going off the stage and coming back, Ray finally decided to give an encore performance – his personal rendition of Waltzing Matilda. It was in a minor key, slow and melancholic showing a sense of nostalgia, but returning to a major key and a happy ending — perhaps showing that he feels back at home after his global success. Ray’s performance was electrifying, beautiful, and expressive – and the audience seemed to love it.
Images supplied. Credit Daniel Boud.