Winner of the Queen Elisabeth Competition (2009) the Yehudi Menuhin Competition (2008), Ray Chen is among the most compelling young violinists today. His recent performances, including debut recitals at the Kennedy Center in Washington D. C. the Merkin Hall in New York, have enraptured both the audiences and the critics. Born in Taiwan and raised in Australia, Ray Chen was accepted to the Curtis Institute of Music at the age of 15, where he studied with Aaron Rosand.
Mr. Chen plays the 1721 “Macmillan” Stradivarius provided as part of the award for winning the 2008-09 Young Concert Artists International Auditions in New York.
This month, Toby Cumpstay (Simply for Strings) sat down with Ray Chen to ask a few questions about his musical journey so far, as final preparations were underway for his upcoming world tour.
You started playing the violin at the age of 4, why violin?
When I was 3 years old I had a little guitar amongst my toys. One day after seeing the image of a violinist somewhere, I decided to put it underneath my chin and together with a chopstick pretended to play “the violin”! My parents then thought it would be a great idea to give me a violin for my 4th birthday!
Numerous prominent Australian violinists began their musical life through the Suzuki method. How do you think this has influenced your training and approach to music making?
The Suzuki Method is a great way to get kids involved in the music. I was also extremely blessed to have a wonderful teacher whose entire family made my early musical education so enjoyable. I always looked forward to the group lessons we had every week. My goal was to try and perform a new piece in front of my peers! I guess one could say I was a bit of a show-off… but that’s definitely where my passion to perform stemmed from.
At age 15 you were accepted to the Curtis Institute and began studying under Aaron Rosand, are you currently still studying with Aaron Rosand? And what has Aaron helped you with the most in your playing and performing?
The Curtis Institute provided me with great support throughout my college education. It was also the reason why I moved to the United States. It is such a unique place and one learns almost as much from their fellow colleagues as they do from the esteemed faculty. Mr Rosand was not only my teacher in violin studies, but also a friend, and a mentor. I graduated from Curtis in May of 2010 but still keep in close contact with my former teacher.
What challenges do you face as a professional string musician?
I’ve always been one to see a challenge as a source of inspiration. The 21st-century musician has many obstacles to face but also has many tools at his disposal. Social media sites such as Youtube, Twitter and Facebook are a powerful way to build a fan base. A personal website also helps too! My website (www.raychenviolin.com) uses all of the above to provide a closer and more personal connection between my fans and me.
Where has been the most inspiring place you’ve ever performed?
Each city that I’ve been to has provided me with a wonderful experience. I do have to say though, that it was definitely a proud Australian moment when I performed Brahms Violin Concerto at the Sydney Opera House earlier this year.
Favourite travel destination…?
I go where good food takes me! Haha but seriously, I love to go to each city and eat at the best local places! I also like to blog about each place that I’ve been to so that my fans can get to know me a little better! To name a few of my favourites; Paris, Shanghai, Melbourne, Brussels, Berlin, and New York!
What are you currently listening to (classical or not)?
I actually don’t listen to classical music when I’m not “working” not because I don’t love it but I feel that it’s important to have a sense of balance in life and music. I’m currently in an electronic music stage of my life right now; Daft Punk, Deadmau5, DJ Schan – these are a few of my favourites.
What do you do to relax, away from the violin?
With such a hectic schedule it can be fun but also stressful. To overcome that I like work out at the gym (plus that way I can eat more!) and also I enjoy having a few drinks with my buddies.
If you could invite anyone to a dinner party (dead or alive) who would you invite?
I would love to have; Beethoven (but with hearing still intact so there can be conversation without shouting), Jascha Heifetz (because he’s such a badass on the violin), Robert Downey Jr (because he’s just simply a badass), George Clooney (so he can teach me his charm), Natalie Portman, Scarlett Johansson, Keira Knightley, and Gwyneth Paltrow – all of whom I think are the most gorgeous women in the world.
Which strings do you prefer for your violin and why?
I use strings by Thomastik which I think have a fantastic selection to choose from. Over the years I’ve come to create a custom set that I think sounds best on any violin. For the G string I use the Peter Infeld “pi” Medium gauge, D string is a silver Dominant Light gauge, A string is an aluminium Dominant Medium gauge, and the E string is a Vision Heavy gauge.
Can you tell us a bit about your violin?
The current violin I am using now is the 1721 Macmillan Stradivarius which is on loan to me through Young Concert Artists. It is a wonderful instrument that has the typical brilliant “Strad sound” that has a very fine quality about its tone. It’ll be a sad day when I have to give it back!
As a contemporary classical musician who grew up in Australia, how do you see the future of classical music within Australia?
I think that classical music is steadily growing in Australia – a relatively new nation compared to the rest of the world (and especially the composers that wrote classical music!). Every year when I go back, I am very happy to hear the level of music making become higher. I’m sure that in a few years Australia will be in a prominent place on the classical world stage!
Who or What inspires you?
The people that inspire me as a musician are; my managers at CAMI, Jascha Heifetz, David Oistrakh, Maxim Vengerov, and Eddie Van Halen. The people that inspire me as a person are; my family and my friends.
Practice can be a very personal thing for musicians, how do you approach practice?
Work now, then play later. It’s worth it.
For the young string musicians reading, what advice would you give them as they embark on their musical journey?
Don’t give up. Don’t be afraid, but definitely DO go out there and have the time of your life.