Ray Chen, already a renowned violinist at just 23, wants to convince young people that classical music is cool. Part of the "Junge Wilde" program at Konzerthaus Dortmund, he goes to schools to talk to youth.
Ray Chen has already enjoyed a successful career as a classical violinist - delighting audiences around the world with his precise, highly sensitive playing. But while the young musician is setting his sights in the music world ever higher, he endeavors to remain down-to-earth by reaching out to youth. A member of the "Junge Wilde" (Young and Wild) group of musical talents who give concerts at Dortmund's Konzerthaus, he also goes into schools to engage with students and show them just how exciting classical music can be.
Chen was born in Taiwan, but moved with his family to Australia when he was just four months old. There he enjoyed the surf and beaches, while also falling in love with the violin. He moved to the United States when he was 16 to attend the prestigious Curtis Institute of Music. Winner of an Echo Klassik Award in 2011, the Queen Elisabeth Competition in 2009 and the Yehudi Menuhin Competition in 2008, he plays the 1721 "Macmillan" Stradivarius violin.
DW caught up with Chen in Dortmund, where he recently played as part of the Konzerthaus Dortmund's preview of the coming season, including its "Junge Wilde" series.
DW: You're part of this "Junge Wilde" series at the Dortmund Konzerthaus. There's also a video on YouTube of the young classical music talents involved. How are you trying to make classical music appealing to young people?
Ray Chen: What I'm going to project is that it's fun, it's cool. We break through the stereotype that classical music is boring. That's what we share. I also saw this video and these kids smashing up their instruments. But that's not me. I don't possess any anger for music.
I've found - by visiting a lot of schools - that most kids simply don't have access to live artists, much less live artists coming to their school to talk to them on a one-on-one basis. So how could they know? And we're competing against all of this media with the pop music industry. And they're getting all this stuff hammered into them every day. MTV and other programs like that on television and on the Internet. So I feel like they don't have that much of an interest in it. I think it's up to us, being young artists - if we go there and meet with them, they can relate to us. That's what part of "Junge Wilde" is all about - that we're not stiff old people playing music no one understands.
What music do you listen to?
A whole variety! Pop, jazz, old school stuff, like Frank Sinatra. Current things like Katie Perry, Lady Gaga - but not so much of that, really. But some great bands I really like. New bands, emerging bands. Just the other day I heard a new band called The Luck - a brother and sister duo over in the UK; they're so original. Social media is so great - you can find these new bands, this new music out there. It's so accessible.
And it really keeps what I do - classical music - fresh. So that I'm able to come back to it with eagerness and excitement.
But playing, do you venture out from classical at all?
No. I enjoy myself with other types of music, but just listening, as an audience member. I leave that kind of music to those professionals. I don't want to start any cross-over thing. I think it takes a lot of respect to play classical music properly, to play any kind of music properly, for that matter. You have to really live in that world. If you start straddling both fields, it's natural that some of the rock stuff is going to come into the classical music. It's a different technique to play that kind of stuff. Learning the chop for jazz, for instance, or the bow technique for blue grass - it's strictly for that music. But then it would be natural to say, "Okay, I'm just going to do that here on this chord." It might be good, but it might not. And everything then just becomes very muddled - this gray zone. So I think it's good to keep to one thing, and just enjoy yourself in other kinds of music - but not professionally, not for me, at least.
What's your first conscious moment of music?
How I began the violin is actually when I saw a photo of myself with this toy guitar. I must have been around three. I was strumming it normally and then one day I wanted to put it under my chin together with a chopstick and try to play it as a violin. And my parents thought it was hilarious, so they decided to buy me a violin for my fourth birthday.
You have a gift in combining emotion with crisp, disciplined playing. How do you achieve that?
Thank you, first of all. It could have to do with my background - coming from an Asian household, we have the discipline there. But I'm fortunate that my mother wasn't a "Tiger Mom." She was more of a reverse-psychology mother: when I didn't want to practice, she'd say, "Okay, that's fine. You can quit the violin." I was so scared of quitting, I'd be like: "No, no, no. I'll practice!"
But in terms of combining technique with musicality, the discipline part is from the Asian mentality: hard work, lots of practice, but the musicality comes from the Western world. All this music we're playing - Mozart, Beethoven, Brahms - is Western music, from Europe, and one needs to relate to that by living in it. Learn the rules of that world, and from then on, you can create your own thing. But you first have to learn the basic laws of that universe, and then you're free to go.
Who are your favorite composers?
Bach. His music is so touching on a human level. It's so deep. You could on and on about it being philosophical and addressing the meaning of life. But honestly, it can be incredibly complex yet also simple. Another favorite composer is Tchaikovsky - the Concerto comes to mind, but also his ballets. There's something elegant and noble at the same time about his work.
A critic for the Washington Post once wrote that you could do anything you want on the violin. What are you trying to do with the instrument?
The role of a performer is to communicate with the audience - using music. We act as the go-between. This connection is what drew me to the violin in the first place, my love of performing. You really have a connection with the people who are listening to you. By the end of the performance, it's almost like you both understand each other on some level. Even on an everyday level, I always love having a guess at what someone's life story might be.
As far as the instrument goes, for many people, they end up not liking something when it becomes their work. But I still truly love the violin.
People have called your playing "mature." Where do you think that comes from?
From life experience, of course, but also imagining how one might feel from an experience. What you can imagine but what you haven't felt - a young musician, say - by young I mean 12 years old, or so - playing a piece that has much sadness in it. I mean, they can project sadness. A five-year-old knows what sadness is. But within sadness, there are so many shades. Like sorrow, for instance, or sad because you're jealous, for example. But in life, you experience some of these things, and then you can pick it up again and feel that. We're like actors - we have to feel it through our whole entire body, that particular emotion, and then it conveys into the music. With more experiences, the more convincing your music will be. So I'm lucky to be active outside the practice room, meeting people, doing things, listening to other kinds of music. Actually, I don't even listen to classical music in my spare time.
Is there one piece of music that you absolutely love - that you play again and again?
Two pieces come to mind. Bach's "Chaconne" - it's the epitome of solo violin repertoire. The piece is ridiculous, it's so good. So deep. It has everything in it - all the emotions, all the colors. And the other - just because it's such a fun piece to play - is the Bruch Violin Concerto No. 1. I love this piece. It's such a "concerto." It's so well written for violin and orchestra. It's a fun thing to play.
Interview: Louisa Schaefer
Editor: Greg Wiser