Interview with 21-year-old Australian violinist Ray Chen who, this week, plays the Brahms Violin Concerto with the Sydney Symphony.
Have you ever doubted that you want to be a concert violinist?
What I’m doing now is my dream: traveling the world, being a guest artist with all these orchestras, having a billion concerts, recordings and that. But you have no idea how many people have the same dream. There’s just not enough room on the stage to have that many. When I was studying at the Curtis Institute in Philadelphia and not winning competitions, I thought about being a concertmaster and other things, but I never once doubted that I would be a musician.
When did you start playing?
I was four years old. I did the Suzuki Method in Brisbane, where I grew up. And it was very nice. I remember my favourite part was having the group lessons every week because there was a little break in between and there’d be cordial and biscuits. That was what I would look forward to.
There’s a stereotype of Asian parents pushing their children to practise. Were your folks like that?
Oh, not at all. My parents aren’t musicians, so they really just stayed out of the way. Of course, no kid wants to practise, so my mum’s way of getting me to practise was to say, “Well, if you don’t want to practise then we don’t have to pay for your lessons and you don’t have to play violin”. I would be terrified, and then I’d practise and practise.
Is your Asian heritage important to you? Obviously it’s a bit confusing for publicists: you studied in America, you were born in Taiwan and you grew up in Australia.
Yeah, I never really thought about it until recently. Now when I go to Taiwan everyone calls me a Taiwanese violinist because I was born there. And when I’m in the States I’m an American-trained violinist. Here in Australian everyone calls me Australian (which is what I call myself). And then when I go to China, they say, “Oh well, Taiwan’s a part of China. He’s a Chinese violinist”. I suppose it’s great to be loved wherever you go. I’m just glad I’m playing music,
and not doing politics.
How much freedom did you have to choose the pieces for your new album Virtuoso?
It was entirely my own choice. I mean, it’s basically my debut recital program. In concert I would start with Tartini’s Devil’s Trill Sonata, followed by the Franck Violin Sonata, and then after intermission I played the Bach Chaconne and the Wieniawski Variations on an Original Theme. I feel like it’s a balanced program, although all the pieces are pretty virtuosic. I didn’t decide on the name Virtuoso myself, by the way – that was the producer. And the name is in reference to the pieces, not to myself!
Oh come on, being a virtuoso violinist is nothing to be ashamed of.
You know, sometimes that title also comes with a bit of a sting. It implies you’re all show and no music. It’s ironic, because technique was never my strong point. When I was a kid I always played badly out of tune, but people said, “Oh yeah, but you’ve got so much soul and musicality. You just need to improve your technique.” So I guess I’m less afraid of being called a virtuoso than some. I’d take it as a sign my technique has actually improved! I used to listen to people and think, how do they not play out of tune? It seemed such a foreign concept. I used to get every third bar out of tune. It was just a technique thing. My left hand was pressing too hard. It’s also in the mind. As soon as you have doubts it’s all over.
Apart from violin repertoire, what other music excites you?
I really like Mahler symphonies – when they’re performed live, though. You know when in Mahler 1 at the end of the last movement the horns stand up? It’s incredible. I heard Myung-whun Chung and the Seoul Philharmonic do it the other week in Guangzhou, at the Asian Games. It was actually quite an honour for me to be invited there, among what they consider to be the top Asian musicians: Yo-Yo Ma, Lang Lang, Midori, Sarah Chang, Cho-Liang Lin and… Ray Chen. It was really a great honour. Anyway, before that I was playing Mozart in Brisbane with the Queensland Symphony, then I flew out for the Games on November 7, spent a few days there, then came back on November 11, then went down to Melbourne, played a concert at the MRC and then went on to the Huntington Festival. This tour seems to have been going on forever.
Any chance of a holiday? How far ahead are you booked up now?
[laughs] Well, actually, the reason I laugh is because on the schedule I’m booked until December 2012. But I was just talking to Carl Vine, the artistic director of Musica Viva, and he was like, “Oh great, you should come in 2014.” I thought he was joking. But he wasn’t.
Ray Chen plays the Brahms Violin Concerto with the Sydney Symphony on Feb 10-14.