At 27, Ray Chen is regarded as one of the finest violinists of his generation. His joy in making music is palpable, his playing is confident, polished and richly characterized.
He’s also harnessed social media to his advantage, which may account for why he says audiences at his concerts are typically young.
On Friday night, Chen is appearing at the Musco Center for the Arts in Orange with his new string quartet, Made in Berlin. None of the members is from Berlin; the group formed there last year. The quartet consists of Chen, who is Taiwanese Australian; Noah Bendix-Balgley, a Berlin Philharmonic concertmaster from North Carolina; Amihai Grosz, the orchestra’s principal violist, an Israeli; and Viennese Stephan Koncz, cellist with the Berlin Phil.
In January, Chen is scheduled to perform the Sibelius concerto with Bramwell Tovey leading the Los Angeles Philharmonic at Walt Disney Concert Hall. And in February, he’ll be featured in Bruch’s first concerto on a tour stop at UCLA’s Royce Hall with Christoph Eschenbach leading the Bamberg Symphony of Germany. For this edited conversation, Chen spoke about his quartet, why he’s spending more time in Berlin and how to get kids interested in classical music.
Because the members of Made in Berlin are often otherwise engaged, how can you hope to compete with full-time string quartets?
A quartet takes years to develop its sound, but we’re going to try and compete. Our violist, Amihai, who was one of the founders of the Jerusalem Quartet, is kind of our backbone in terms of watching our sound. We can do crazy stuff, like starting with Hugo Wolf’s “Italian Serenade.” That is a tough piece, but with these guys — we’re young and have virtuosity in droves. So we have that advantage.
Did you grow up in a musical family?
We had a piano in the house. My mother knew how to play a little bit, my dad not at all. I saw it as this giant monster of a machine. I didn’t see it as an instrument. Especially when you’re 4 years old, a violin literally grows with you. You start on a 1/8 or whatever size it needs to be.
Why have you been spending so much time in Berlin?
I absorb the vibe, the feel of every place I go, including the Asian discipline and the Australian laid-back attitude. For instrumentalists, half of our stuff is by Germanic composers. In Germany, there’s more thickness to the sound. It’s like the difference between German and English. It’s made a big difference in my playing. You’re always going to lack something, but that’s why I’ve been spending more time there. I want to soak up everything.
Do you like practicing?
I never liked practicing. But it’s more complex. Practicing which piece? For what? A competition, a concert? I always look for the reason behind it. That’s what’s going to stoke your fire. Connecting to something that’s relevant to you. No one’s going to get excited if you’re doing something without a personal stake in it.
You’ve worked with conductor-pianist Christoph Eschenbach before. Has he influenced you?
He doesn’t say much, but anything he says is super important. One of my favorite lines is about when you repeat a phrase or passage in a movement, he said it should not sound the same, because you’re already a minute older and wiser than you were before. I always think about that when I’m playing.
You have more than 2 million followers on Soundcloud. How do you use social media?
I’m focusing mainly on Facebook, Instagram, Snapchat and a bit of Twitter. Facebook everyone’s kind of using as a scrapbook for life. Instagram is for the artist within you — the food blogger, the lifestyle traveler. It’s more like a gallery. And then you’ve got Snapchat, which is in the moment and gets deleted after 24 hours. It’s the raw lifestyle of your friends or whoever you choose to follow. I have management but in terms of this, it’s much faster and more genuine coming from me. People can feel that.
What was the experience of being on the other side when you judged the Menuhin Competition for young violinists in London this year?
Although you look for the positives in their playing, you also have to remember the negatives. It affected me because I’m more than just a glass is half-full guy. I’m like, that empty half that you see? That’s magical air. You can’t give everyone a first prize.
For kids starting out on an instrument, what kind of teacher is best?
It’s not about getting a teacher who gets all of your fundamentals right. It’s about getting the teacher who gets your kids to enjoy music. That’s the best teacher.
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