La Scena Musicale

Wednesday, 4 January 2012

Work Now, Play Now: Violinist Ray Chen

By Crystal Chan

As Ray Chen, aged 13, accepted the top prize at the Australian Youth Concerto Competition, he looked around him and realized: “The other kids are a lot older than me.” Then and there, Chen—now a 22-year-old named “the one to watch” by The Strad and Gramophone—gave up on his dreams of becoming a doctor or a lawyer.

His parents were wary. “They were always supportive, but always scared that I might end up playing at a bar or something,” Chen says, laughing. “My parents are not musicians. They were also worried that they couldn’t help me.” Chen applied the discipline of a medical or law school student to music. Up at six a.m. to practice, his preteen mantras were ‘violin has to come first’ and ‘work now, play later.’

Two years later, at 15, Chen got into Curtis. He studied with ‘Romantic Revivalist’ Aaron Rosand, who taught him, among other things, to play with no shoulder rest. Since winning the 2008-09 Young Concert Artists International Auditions in New York, his instrument has been a 1721 “Macmillan” Stradivarius (when that loan finishes in April 2012, he’ll have his pick of the “Lord Newland” Strads, courtesy of the Nippon Foundation). A far cry from his first violin: after Chen cutely played his beloved toy guitar under his chin with a chopstick as a bow, his parents bought it for him when he was four, just around the time the family immigrated from Taiwan to Australia. Chen also won the prestigious Queen Elisabeth (2009) and Yehudi Menuhin (2008) competitions. His debut album, Virtuoso, won the 2011 Echo Klassik Award. He has around 70 worldwide engagements a year. According to Maxim Vengerov, “He has all the skills of a truly musical interpreter.” He has initiated a music outreach program for kids. Chen’s parents didn’t have anything to worry about.

On the heels of the January 2012 release of his debut orchestral recording (with Daniel Harding and the Swedish Radio Orchestra, performing the Tchaikovsky and Mendelssohn concertos), in February Chen will make his Canadian debut with the Orchestre symphonique de Montréal, performing the Sibelius concerto. It’s one of Chen’s top five concertos, and he says it’s just right for a performance in wintry Canada. “Montreal can be quite cold at that time of year, and that’s what I think about when I play that piece: Sibelius was writing it in Finland,” he explains. “It starts with this chilly, atmospheric sound. “

“It’s very difficult from a violin standpoint,” he adds. “But it’s definitely worth it. Some pieces, even when you put in all this effort, don’t give that much in return. But Sibelius is something different. It brings you back double of what you’ve put in.”

So, apparently, did all his hard work early on. When asked whether he’s still in ‘work now, play later’ mode, he answers with an emphatic, “Oh no, no, no. I’m so thankful that I worked first; now I can work and play at the same time. I’m doing my dream job. It’s so much fun. I can travel around the world and play concerts, hang out with friends in every city. I do sports, read. Swimming, tennis, soccer.”

“It’s all about the sports, mate,” he says, switching on his Australian accent. “Having that balance makes my music more fresh and interesting. Having that experience in other things enriches the music. I try new things constantly.”

Ray Chen performs the Sibelius Violin Concerto with the Orchestre symphonique de Montréal, conducted by Jacques Lacombe, February 5, 2:30 p.m.

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Monday, 2 January 2012

Festive Bravissimo Brings 2011 to a Rousing Finish

The 2100 edition of Bravissimo ends with an encore of "Libiamo, libiamo" from La traviata (l. to r. mezzo Wallis Giunta, baritone Aris Argiris, soprano Chiara Taigi, tenor David Pomeroy, soprano Sabina Cvilak) Photo: Joseph So

Bravissimo! Opera's Greatest Hits
Roy Thomson Hall,
Saturday Dec. 31, 2011, 7 p.m.

Sabina Cvilak, sop. (Slovenia)
Chiara Taigi, sop. (Italy)
Wallis Giunta, mezzo (Canada)
David Pomeroy, ten. (Canada)
Aris Argiris, bar. (Greece)
Rick Phillips, MC
Opera Canada Symphony
Bruno Aprea, cond. (Italy)

Since impresario Attila Glatz brought his New Year's Eve/New Year's Day concerts to Toronto, the Dec. 31 edition of Bravissimo! Opera's Greatest Hits has become something of a tradition. The start time was 7 p.m., allowing plenty of time for dinner afterwards. A healthy-sized crowd turned out for an enjoyable evening of operatic selections, on this occasion sung by five singers with established international careers. The two Canadians - Wallis Giunta and David Pomeroy - are well known, but the other three are new to Toronto. It was unfortunate that the originally announced Argentinean soprano Virginia Tola was a no-show, but we got to hear her replacement, Italian soprano Chiara Taigi. Slovenian soprano Sabina Cvilak and Greek baritone Aris Argiris were also making their Toronto debuts.

Italian maestro Bruno Aprea, Artistic Director and Principal Conductor of Palm Beach Opera opened the proceedings with the overture from Rossini's La cenerentola. The first voice of the evening belonged to Aris Argiris, who sang the Count's aria from Nozze di Figaro with ample expression and firm tone. Later in the evening, he brought authority to "Cruda funesta smania" from Lucia di Lammermoor, and teamed up with tenor David Pomeroy for an impressive Carlo-Rodrigo duet from Don Carlo.

Of the two Canadians in the show, I was particularly curious to hear mezzo Wallis Giunta, a former member of the COC Ensemble Studio. She is at the beginning of an international career - and one can see why, given her gleaming high mezzo, supermodel looks and strong stage presence. Her "Una voce poco fa" this evening was sparkling, with added ornamentations that showed off her agility. In the Flower Duet from Lakme, her tone and that of Slovenian soprano Sabina Cvilak's blended quite exquisitely - it was a highlight of the evening, as was her Seguidilla from Carmen. The other Canadian was of course tenor David Pomeroy, who has sung roles such as Faust, Pinkerton, and (upcoming) Hoffmann at the COC to audience acclaim. His bright lyric sound with its facility at the top was heard to advantage, particularly in "Nessun dorma" from Turandot - is there a more surefire crowd-pleaser than this aria? - and as the Duke in Rigoletto.

For me, the revelation of the evening was Slovenian Sabina Cvilak. She possesses an exceptionally beautiful, full lyric soprano with an extraordinary high piano that shimmers and hangs in the air. Cvilak was at her best in the Mirror aria from Thais, and in "Un bel di." Her singing "Adieu, notre petite table" was also lovely, but there was an unfortunate error in the recitativo, where the singer and the orchestra were miles apart in the passage leading up to the high B - a mistake that should not have happened. To be honest, there were quite a number of rough patches, such as the error made by the flute solo that opened "Casta diva." The problems were mostly in the second half as if they ran out of rehearsal time, not an unusual situation in these one-off events. But the audience seemed not to have noticed and the artists were well applauded.

The official part of the program ended with the Quartet from Rigoletto, where Wallis Giunta stole the show as a Carmen-like Maddalena. The audience was treated to an encore, the obligatory "Libiamo, libiamo" from La traviata. Repeated ovations brought them back for a round of Auld Lang Syne, with the audience joining in lustily at the end.