Have Stradivarius. Will travel. Will dazzle. It’s not hard to understand why Australian violin wunderkind, Ray Chen attracts enthusiastic capacity audiences like the one at this concert. The 1715 ‘Joachim’ Stradivarius he plays has full, open tone from top to bottom, and Chen’s prodigious technique is allied to a natural showman mentality. There’s something of the loveable larrikin about him that allows him to connect with a wide range of listeners. Add to the mix Mendelssohn’s perennially popular concerto and you’re on a winner.

Ray ChenRay Chen. Photo © Sophie Zhai

Chen’s account of the Mendelssohn was at the centre of this ‘chamber orchestra’ style concert in which the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra was directed by concertmaster Dale Barltrop from the first desk of the violins. An ebullient account of the overture to Rossini’s The Italian Girl in Algiers opened proceedings; oboist Jeffrey Crellin making the first of many well-crafted contributions to the program. An admirable lightness of touch and apt comic timing set the mood and signalled to audience members that they would not be allowed to slip into any post-prandial concert slumber.

Orchestra members, particularly the wind players, were also not allowed any sense of complacency in the Mendelssohn. A cracking pace was set from the beginning, giving the first movement a more martial character than is normally the case, and not allowing for much contrast to emerge in the second subject group. Although the orchestra seemed happy to go along with Chen’s view of the music, it meant that both here and in the finale the wind would be on their mettle to sustain the given tempo which was often whipped along by the soloist. A tendency to join the end of one phrase to the next added to a sense of breathlessness.

Greater flexibility in tempo and timbre would have added to the sense of repose in the slow, second movement, but in any event this was soon eclipsed by the blistering finale which overflowed with a sparkling sense of joie de vivre. As in the first movement, Chen made a point of playing up the technical challenges, investing them with a Paganini-like brilliance, often holding his instrument with an elevated left hand, as though he was aiming at some imaginary clay pigeon in the rafters. A sustained and rapturous reception ensued for Chen. What Mendelssohn, who eschewed “juggler’s tricks” would have thought, who knows.

Two encores ensued. The first, Chen’s own arrangement of Waltzing Matilda respected the sombre nature of the story and allowed the audience to sample the greater range of expression of which he is capable. Reverting to type, the second encore was Paganini’s Caprice No 21, whose pyrotechnics again delighted the full house.

After interval Chen joined Barltrop in Vivaldi’s Concerto for Two Violins in A minor, Op 3 No. 8 (RV 522). Apart from some clearly articulated bass parts and a harpsichord, there was no real attempt here to produce anything historically informed. Long, legato phrases were basically the order of the day, as was having fun. Chen set the tempi, which, once again, could have benefitted from some relaxation. (The ‘hammer strokes’ at the beginning lost their force because they were too fast.) Balance between the two soloists was also an issue at times, given the differing nature of the instruments involved. Nonetheless the small ensemble and the two soloists enjoyed themselves across the work’s three short movements.

A polished reading of Schubert’s Symphony No 3 in D, (D 200) maintained the upbeat programming to the end. Once again, the orchestra’s winds came into their own; notably clarinet and oboe in the first movement, and oboe and bassoon in the ländler-like Trio of the third. Well balanced sonorities, excellent intonation and sensitive ensemble permeated the performance which also had a lively sense of rhythm and forward movement. This work is part of the repertory for the orchestra’s forthcoming US tour, and on this evidence it should leave a very fine impression on audiences.

Speaking of the orchestra’s US tour, I was somewhat saddened to read that the tour concerts will be the last occasions on which Steve Reeves will play with the orchestra as Principal Double Bass. Steve’s career with the MSO has spanned 30 years and four principal conductors – a great achievement by any measure. This concert was Steve’s last Melbourne appearance as Principal. May he continue to prosper! Hopefully he will return for the occasional cameo. Who knows, in the meantime, he may well say, “have bass, will travel, will dazzle”.