Ray Chen is well-known internationally as an up-and-coming violinist. With a friendly, approachable attitude and a passion for spreading the love of classical music, he is destined to join the iconic ranks of Yo Yo Ma and Lang Lang. When I caught up with Chen over the phone recently, he was in Caracas, Venezuela, invited by Conductor Christian Vásquez to play with the kids from El Sistema. When he comes to Santa Barbara on Wednesday, October 21, as part of UCSB’s Arts & Lectures series, Chen will be playing pieces by several composers including Beethoven, Saint-Saëns.
Tell me more about your experience in Venezuela. They have 20+ youth orchestras there and I’m playing with the Teresa Carreño Youth Orchestra, doing master classes every day. The concerts here are performed free of charge and are packed with people. I’m also visiting the nucleus program where the kids start at 3-4 years old.
You started with the Suzuki method right? What’s the difference between the El Sistema vs. the Suzuki method? The only thing that’s musicaly similar, is playing together. Suzuki’s method is great and I love him; it taught me how to enjoy music, be apart of something bigger and be humble. But in Venezuela, you have kids that are scraping by, living on $20 a month, so the government is trying to keep kids off the street by providing them with instruments. It’s in the curriculum now, and has become very competitive. I was told there are 700,000 kids playing classical music now and has it captured the hearts of so many people.
What do you have in store for Santa Barbara this time? I try to perform lesser-known compositions from famous composers and famous compositions from lesser-known composers. For the first half I’m playing with Julio Elizalde and for the second half I’m doing solo pieces. I’ll be playing Beethoven, Eugène Ysaÿe, Manuel De Falla, and Santa Barbara will be one of first audiences to hear me playing HYPERLINK “http://imslp.org/wiki/Category:Monti,_Vittorio” Vittorio Monti’s Csárdás.
You play on a Stradivarius right? What’s it like playing on that vs. a modern violin? Yeah, I’ve played on different Stradivarius violins, but the one I’m currently playing is [from] the golden period 1715 “Joachim” Stradivarius violin. He was big deal violinist in his day and now I’m playing on it, which is pretty cool. To ask what the difference between specific Stradivarius vs. non-specific makers is not a fair question. However, I have two violins made by American maker Kurt Widenhouse, one that I’m playing here in Venezuela. Modern instruments need to be aged well. You got to play well on them and take care of them. You paint a very thin layer of sound inside the instrument every time you play on it — then it starts resonating more. Just in one year I have notice the drastic change in my instrument.
Also a big part of it is the psychological aspect to playing the instrument. If I told you that I was pouring a glass of $10,000 Chateau “something” you would expect for it to taste good, right? Now, if I switched the wine inside the bottle and poured you a glass of a $100 bottle, would you still know? That’s what it like playing a ‘Strad’ vs. a modern instrument — violinists listen with their eyes, not with their ears. The instrument helps, but its really about how well you can play on it.
What would you say is your biggest strength as a violinist? What makes Ray Chen, Ray Chen? [Laughs] After you sort out the music and playing, there’s a lot of thought that comes into what kind of an artist I want to be. Do I want to be the kind of artist that is so amazing at a concert, who is perceived as god-like and “I’ll never be like him,” or be the artist who is also great, but is a normal person that goes on stage, perceived as “If I work just as hard, I can be like him, if I choose to go in that direction.”. I want to inspire the audience in that kind of an angle.
I think what makes me different or unique from Yo Yo Ma or Lang Lang, is that I want people to think they could be me. I want to show people that I’m a normal person, literally a normal guy. That’s the new generation on social media, that’s what people are attracted to, people who are just willing to be themselves — that is what people relate to.
I’ve seen you’re YouTube channel; it’s funny and your personality really shines through. Do you have team that you work with? No, no, it’s just me. I use Twitter a lot, and put stuff on Facebook, Instagram, and YouTube. I want people to get to know me, and break the stereotype that classical music is unapproachable or unfriendly.
It’s like this executive club member feeling, where a lot of people don’t know how to get into it. There are two camps: there’s one camp that says classical music is not for everyone that “the audience will come to us,” that “well not everyone can afford a three-star Michelin restaurant, so why should we make it more affordable and accessible?” I got to say that those people, where they already have a dedicated audience, are stuck in their ivory tower.
No one has to go to music school to appreciate it classical music. You don’t have to be “educated” to enjoy it. You just have to introduce it to the audience, in the right context. I have personal friends that ask me, “What should we wear for the concert?” and I tell them you wear what you want, but they still decide to go Great Gatsby style in tuxedos. There shouldn’t be these kinds of questions; I mean for me, it should be what people want to do.
UCSB’s Arts & Lectures presents violinist Ray Chen with pianist Julio Elizalde Wednesday, October 21, 7 p.m., at the Music Academy of the West’s Hahn Hall, 1070 Fairway Rd. For tickets and information, call (805) 893-3535 or see artsandlectures.ucsb.edu.