Violinist Ray Chen, virtuoso and social media pioneer, to perform Mozart with Aspen Chamber Symphony
IF YOU GO …
What: Aspen Chamber Symphony with violinist Ray Chen
Where: Benedict Music Tent
When: Friday, July 6, 6 p.m.
How much: $82
Tickets: Wheeler Opera House and Harris Concert Hall box offices; aspenmusicfestival.com
More info: The program includes Mozart’s ‘Paris’ Symphony, Mozart’s Violin Concerto No. 5, Ibert’s ‘Hommage a Mozart’ and Mizet’s Symphony No. 1
The violinist Ray Chen is redefining what it means to be a classical music star.
Yes, Chen is a virtuoso who can don a tuxedo and inspire awe as a soloist, as he will Friday when he performs Mozart’s Fifth Violin Concerto with the Aspen Chamber Symphony. Yet he also has an online following in the millions — a fan base that clicks to hear his music but also to watch his goofy videos or to see him mess around with Instagram filters.
In the often-staid world of classical music, Chen is a revolutionary personality and an ambassador to the new generation of digital natives.
“I don’t mind being a bit of an entertainer,” Chen said in a recent phone interview from Berlin. “That was always kind of my thing.”
A youthful 29, Chen has a millennial fluency with social media and video production to match his world-class ability with his instrument.
He has more than 2 million followers on SoundCloud and huge virtual crowds on Facebook and on Instagram. His popular comedic videos include quick, clever and goofy clips: There’s Chen and two friends simultaneously playing one violin; Chen plugging an iPad into a violin and hooting “Power of music!”; Chen putting his violin in the dryer and shrinking it; another where he wears a hazmat suit while giving a young woman a lesson; one where he gets caught texting during an orchestra rehearsal; and one extended bit claiming “all Europeans sound the same” on the violin and training a violinist to “sound more Asian.”
“I’ve found this second calling as a script writer and producer and video editor and director,” Chen said. “It’s also really inspired me as a musician.”
His broad comedy bits, he noted, always involve the violin in some way. The effect of these punchy clips is often to humanize the mythic figure of the concert violinist.
“I want to make people smile and laugh and also show them a different side of classical music – one that’s not walking out on the stage, bowing, playing and then walking off,” he said. “There’s got to be more to this. There’s got to be a deeper connection between an audience and an artist.”
Born in Taiwan, raised in Australia, educated in the U.S. at the Curtis Institute of Music — and in summers as a teenager at the Aspen Music Festival and School — Chen is now based in Berlin but spends much of his time traveling the world for concerts. He’s performed as a soloist with the world’s most prestigious symphonies and on stages from Carnegie Hall to the Nobel Prize Concert.
His first major gig, Chen recalled, was performing at the 1998 Winter Olympics in Nagano, Japan, when he was 8 years old.
“I said, ‘Wow, if this little box can take me around the world, this is what I want to do for the rest of my life.’”
Growing up in the spotlight, his videos and his social media presence became a vital creative outlet for Chen as he was also putting in the countless hours of practice and study necessary to become a concert violinist.
“In the meantime, it was also, ‘How can I create something on the side?’” he said. “So it was social media. I found my own voice in that. … You kind of get told all through your life what you can’t do. Like, ‘This is Bach! This is Beethoven! You can’t do this or that.’ You end up being boxed in. You’re walking a very narrow path of creativity because you get so insecure. You’re afraid to try anything.”
Chen sees this new medium of expression as a key outlet, especially, for young classical musicians. Combatting the extreme stress of solo performance and navigating the often stuffy and tradition-bound culture of classical music, kids breaking out to express themselves online — or just seeing Chen do so — can function as a pressure valve.
“I wanted to reach out to the young audience who are learning instruments, who are going though a difficult time, probably — because I totally understand them and can relate to them, to say ‘You are not alone,’” he said. “There’s someone you can always feel like you can speak to.’”
He corresponds frequently with the young people through social media. His profile is less about self-promotion than it is about self-expression.
“I really enjoy it personally,” he said. “It’s just a great tool for an artist to communicate directly with fans.”
Chen’s relationship with the Mozart concerto he’ll be performing in Aspen goes back to his roots on violin: the piece is part of the Suzuki method’s violin curriculum, through which he learned the instrument. Chen has fond memories of his Suzuki studies, which comes to this Mozart piece in its final book. He first played it with his Suzuki group in Australia when he was 8.
“I still feel a freshness of that piece,” he said. “It’s a fond memory of that time when I first really enjoyed music — and first decided I wanted to become a professional musician.”
Chen stayed in the Suzuki method beyond its traditional curriculum and up through Mendelssohn’s violin concerto.
“It’s part of my upbringing, as a Suzuki kid, I loved it,” he said. “I loved the social aspects of it. Playing onstage by yourself is really scary. But the Suzuki method starts you out playing with people, so you feel safer in that group environment.”
In keeping with his embrace of new media, Chen developed a free online video game that corresponds with his new album, “The Golden Age,” released last month. The album includes new recording of the Bruch Concerto and arrangements and transcriptions by “golden age” violinists like Fritz Kreisler and Jascha Heifetz. The video game, titled “The Golden Violin,” is in the mold of the classic arcade game “Frogger,” but with the player — a Ray Chen avatar — dodging treble clefs and notes instead of cars. Through Facebook, Chen will award an actual golden violin prize to the player who records the highest score.
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