In performance: Ray Chen
Ray Chen can do pretty much anything he wants on the violin. Even by the standards of competition-winners, whose biographies usually resound with effusive superlatives, his is striking: in 2009, he won both the Queen Elisabeth Competition and the Young Concert Artists competition (both entitling the winner to the use of a different Stradivarius), and in 2008, after winning the Menuhin competition, he was chosen by Maxim Vengerov (now a conductor) to perform with him and the Mariinsky. Chen's Washington recital debut at the Terrace Theater on Tuesday night, presented by YCA, bore out the promise of his resumé. Assured, handsome, 20 years old, this young man can play the violin.
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The program was calculated to set aside any doubts about his range, with four notably different pieces, each of them demanding attention. The opener, Tartini’s virtuosic “Devil’s Trill” sonata, was actually the weak link, not because Chen didn’t have the chops for it but because he played it with a stiff earnestness that led one to wonder if he were one of those contemporary virtuosos who are heavy on technique and light on a sense of fun. The start of the second piece, the Franck sonata, did a lot to allay such fears, since Chen immediately plunged into an entirely new role, taking on a dry and easy insouciance to match the work. The final phrase of the opening movement was thrown away in a brief lack of concentration, but for the most part the playing was notable for its ease and beauty, and, in the final movement, sweetness, intense but not cloying.
Returning after intermission, Chen found the audience still getting seated, and accordingly sat down himself on the piano bench with an easy “No rush, no worries, take your time,” which some members of the public took all too literally. Whether this was a sign of his growing comfort or an ice-breaker, it started a second half that was marked by consummate authority, first in a formidable performance of Bach’s Chaconne, and then in the pure 19th-century schmaltz of three pieces by Wieniawski, ranging from the outrageously virtuosic (Kreisler’s arrangement of “Saltarelle”) to the sugary-pretty (“Legende”), served up with just the right amount of inner twinkle.
Chen makes a beautiful sound but doesn’t, like some violinists, get lost in tone for its own sake; when he's on, it appears, he knows how to make a sound that feels exactly right for the piece in question. His accompanist, Noreen Polera, is powerful enough to give him more than a run for his money; at those moments on the first half of the program where he wasn’t yet fully authoritative, she kept threatening to overpower him. In the end, though, Chen showed he was the one to watch.
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