The Vogue Violinist from the Small Town Down Under Makes His CSO Debut

By Jack Zimmerman

Ray Chen is a 28-year-old violinist with a white-hot career. He recently signed a major recording deal and multimedia partnership with Decca Classics, noted critics sing his praises, and he’s followed by over two million fans on SoundCloud.

“My parents are not musicians but they love music,” Chen says. “My father’s a businessman—he’s actually completely tone deaf—and my mom plays a little bit of piano. I’d say that she’s where my musical talent stems from. She used to play piano as a child but couldn’t continue because of the financial constraints on her family. She poured all that energy and enthusiasm into me!”

Chen, who was born in Taiwan and grew up in Australia, began his violin studies at age 4. “Brisbane is not exactly the musical center of the world,” he says. “But I think that had a positive influence on me because, in Brisbane, competition wasn’t everything. Later, I went to [the] Curtis [Institute in Philadelphia], where things were much more cutthroat, but by that time I was certain that playing the violin was exactly what I wanted to do. I’m not sure how I would have reacted to all that competition had I experienced it at an early age.”

But as he admits, the absence of competition can be problematic. “I gained confidence very quickly—especially in the small town of Brisbane. The problem with all that confidence is that it’s so easy to develop holes in your repertoire and technique.”

Around the age of 13, Chen was taught by Peter Zhang, a violin pedagogue who was well-known in China. “He used to teach at the Shanghai Conservatory,” Chen says. “He basically cleaned up my technique, but it was the years I spent at Curtis that had the largest impact on me.”

Chen was accepted at Curtis when he was only 15, and the school offered the aspiring virtuoso plenty of opportunity for musical growth. “[About a third] of my musical knowledge came from just being around my colleagues and watching them play. We were big fans of the old-school players like [Jascha] Heifetz and [David] Oistrakh, [Nathan] Milstein and Leonid Kogan. I studied with Aaron Rosand at Curtis, and I also took lessons with many other teachers, not just violinists.”

Chen travels constantly, piling up scads of frequent-flyer miles while hopping from continent to continent. The week before his July 28 Ravinia appearance, he’s in back in Brisbane performing Paganini’s Violin Concerto No. 1, and only a few days after his date at the festival—where’s he’s making his Chicago Symphony Orchestra debut—he’ll be in Amsterdam playing the same piece, Mendelssohn’s Violin Concerto in E minor. “I remember the moment I first heard it,” Chen says. “For me this piece was everything. I loved it from the start; played it in competitions, in auditions, and now in performances. It’s one of the pieces Mendelssohn wrote when he was older. I think he was 34. It’s a much more mature piece than his other violin concerto, the D-minor one. Each time I play it—doesn’t matter where—it has that excitement, that freshness. I remember constantly listening to Maxim Vengerov’s recording of it. I definitely wore that one out.”

In addition to appearing with the great orchestras and in the great concert halls of the world, Chen makes the internet his stage, offering a series of engaging videos on Facebook and Instagram. He also writes a regular blog about his life as a touring soloist for the Italian publishing house RCS Rizzoli. Often attired in Giorgio Armani, Chen was recently featured in the pages of Vogue.

Despite his frequent travel and performing, he does occasionally relax. “Sometimes, when I’m not playing the violin, I just like to be in one spot. I think it comes from traveling all the time. I just want to be somewhere where there’s a beach—a nice sunny beach. I think that comes from growing up in Australia. These days I like to hang out with friends or go to the gym. I like to keep healthy and fit. Ordinary stuff. It sounds so boring and mundane, but when you have the kind of life I have, always traveling and doing all these things, sometimes you just want something normal.”

Jack Zimmerman is a Chicago writer who has spent his life in music.