Ray Chen electrified Santa Barbara music lovers this week with a sparkling debut that bore witness to his internationally lauded skills and musicianship. In a smartly organized program weighted toward duets, the 24-year-old Taiwanese-Australian violinist, with the help of pianist Julio Elizalde, displayed sensitivity and verve with fresh perspectives on classical, baroque, and 20th-century works, capping the evening in a blaze of Spanish romance. Despite air travel delays that landed the duo on the tarmac less than two hours before the performance, winsome attitude and wit trumped all.
The evening began with the cheery dialogues of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart’s Sonata in A Major, K. 305. The Variations of the second movement included a solo piano passage that gave Elizalde, a Music Academy of the West alum, a sustained spotlight. But all of this was only warm-up for the substantial collaboration of the night, Sergei Prokofiev’s Violin Sonata No. 2 in D Major, a work originally composed for flute, but successful only after adaptation for violin. So irresistible was the ignition of the Presto movement that spontaneous applause broke out mid-piece. After intermission, Chen returned to the stage alone to give a brave rendition of J.S. Bach’s third Partita for unaccompanied violin. No metronomic tether here — the violinist shaped the contours, paused at the peaks, and gave us every reason to believe we were not hearing a 1720 étude, but 2013 rapture. The program ended with the crowd-pleasing pyrotechnics of Spanish dances by Pablo de Sarasate, replete with glissandos, flash-fast ornamental runs, and a throaty dark tone to make Iberians blush.