Review: Ray Chen and the RSNO at Glasgow Royal Concert Hall

Chen’s beautiful sound costs him his music.

The concerto has not always been the most well-respected medium for a demonstration of a musician’s overall ability. In the early 19th century, the Philharmonic Society of London temporarily barred concertos from performances, on the grounds of providing the “best and most approved instrumental music.” There was a prejudice against the concerto for its overemphasis on the virtuosity and technical ability of the soloist.

In the modern age, this is all long forgotten. Showmanship is embraced and enjoyed. Soloists are often global celebrities and orchestras ache over the chance to bag a concert with an A-lister.

Ray Chen’s performance of the Sibelius Violin Concerto with the Royal Scottish National Orchestra came then, with no surprise, at the packed Glasgow Royal Concert Hall. Chen is a superstar violinist with a large social media following. Having precociously won many competitions that led to large scale performances all over the world and online, Chen has firmly established his seat on the council of elite classical musicians. He is anything but a stranger to the popular repertoire, also being well acquainted with the Sibelius Concerto. As a first-time in-person listener to Chen, my expectations were high.

His arrival on stage came with thunderous applause—more than I had heard in the Concert Hall before. Although Chen’s wide grin seemed to indicate an intimate and warm comfort with the excessive attention, the first movement began on an antithetical note: quiet and reflective of Sibelius’ home experiences of the cold and icy Finnish winters. Chen captured it well. Throughout the movement, which journeys itself through romance and Scandinavian intensity, Chen’s sound remained crisp and powerful. Notwithstanding a few minor scratches on his recently acquired Dolphin Stradivarius (yes; a violin that Heifetz played), he proved distinctly himself as a virtuoso.

The second movement continued the trend of Chen’s impacting tone. The adagio is a beautiful and melancholic haul up the violin’s G string, which was unsurprisingly handled with care and accuracy by the violin and the violinist.

The primary concern with Chen’s interpretation of the first two movements lies in his apparent preoccupation with his instrument and its sound. Throughout the performance, each turn of phrase appeared to come at a surprise to Chen. The sound, while extravagant, did not make as much sense in context of the score. The feeling of the music changed as quickly as his bouncing facial expressions. Although dramatic, such vacillation seemed to hinder the piece as a whole. A prioritisation of an almost hedonistic enjoyment of the violin over a holistic focus on the overall musical work left a wavering uncertainty. While I was impressed by Chen’s gross technical ability, I remained confused at the direction the music was going. Each phrase seemed like it lived in its own box, labelled with a temporary, fleeting emotion. As a result, the heart-wrenching moments just weren’t there. The musical journey felt more like a horror movie with no coherent narrative, but fantastic visual effects.

Chen is certainly not to be dismissed; however. The third movement did exactly what it said on the tin, and more. It was as explosive and thrilling as one could hope for. It fit perfectly with Chen’s character and had every audience member applauding with passion upon the high D that finished the work.

The message of this article is not to reestablish the archaic grudge against the concerto. Nor is it a call back to the days of Heifetz and Oistrakh where showmanship didn’t take as much of the spotlight. Instead, we need to find a balance. Soloists exist to excite and enthuse with otherworldly abilities, yet, in each recital, they also need to be cautious of the picture they are painting. There is a failure in regard to effect, should they forget their previous stroke, focusing only on the colour of the present.

With respect to the rest of the concert, everything was wonderful. The RSNO’s presentation of the atmospheric and questioning Om fotspar och ljus by Lotta Wennäkoski was not as accessible as the audience might be accustomed, and yet, it was inviting in its bewildering nature. Dvorak Symphony No. 6 worked as an easy counterbalance. The orchestra maintained strict timing, but made exquisite strides in the adagio movement, along with a fierce and exhilarating finale.

A very good concert indeed.

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