Robert Chen: The CSO Concertmaster Musters a solo concert

By Wynne Delacoma

It's an oft-told tale. A little girl, attending her first live symphony concert, is enthralled by the imposing conductor waving a baton. She turns to her parents: “Mommy, Daddy, that’s what I want to do when I grow up.” A little boy, hearing a flute or a clarinet or a violin or a tuba for the first time, is mesmerized. He clamors for an instrument of his own. Decades later, that little boy and girl have become internationally acclaimed musicians accepting the applause of audiences from San Francisco to Sydney, Australia.

Was it like that for violinist Robert Chen, concertmaster of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra since 1999, who will give a rare solo recital at Ravinia on January 13? He certainly is a stellar example of the second part of the tale. A musically gifted youngster, Chen graduated from the prestigious Juilliard School. Immersed in a thriving solo career, he opted for the orchestral world. After two years working with the Philadelphia Orchestra, he landed one of the international music world’s most prestigious jobs—co-concertmaster of the CSO.

But back to Chen’s childhood in Taipei, Taiwan, where he was born in 1969. As a little boy, was he entranced by the violin’s siren song? Was it love at first listen?

In a word? No. A quick, emphatic no, followed by an amiable laugh.

“That’s a romantic notion for a lot of people,” says Chen, who came to the US at age 10 with his family. “In reality it was reactionary for my parents to give their children the opportunity to have a musical education. They grew up during the [World War II] years, and everybody was concerned with whether there was something to eat. As society became more prosperous, people looked for ways to sort of boost their own prestige, and music lessons was one of those things.”

Chen started on piano, which he didn’t take to at all. “It was at a community music school,” he says, “with 15 other kids in the class playing on these electronic keyboards.” Not a happy scenario for a boy who would rather be outside enjoying “wild bike rides” with his friends.

Since his two older sisters already played piano, Chen suspects his parents began to realize that three siblings vying for practice time on the household’s sole piano would not turn out well. “I don’t recall asking for the violin, but one day I came home and there it was. I won the lottery,” he says with a wry laugh.

He started lessons at age 7, but not until three years later, when his family moved to the US, did he become serious about the violin. They settled in Los Angeles; Robert joined a local youth orchestra and began studying with noted violin teacher Robert Lipsett.

“He was a great influence in my life, both as a violinist and as a person,” Chen says. “He was very persistent, but he was fun and very encouraging, which wasn’t in the vocabulary of the teacher I had in Taiwan. I think the encouragement part is crucial for a young person, to keep them motivated. The expectations were set very clearly, but it helps when someone says, ‘That’s it. You’re getting there.’ ”

Chen built a solid solo career, but after a few years he came to dislike the constant, solitary travel. Nor was he comfortable with the self-promotion necessary to propel the itinerary. So when a friend suggested he audition for the Philadelphia Orchestra, he decided to give it a try. He spent two years as a full-time substitute in Philadelphia.

“I was always curious about how other aspects of music worked,” Chen says. “I played a lot of chamber music. At Juilliard I was one of those strange kids who would show up to the conducting classes. I would listen to the conducting teacher talk about how music was put together. I was never very far away from orchestras. The Philadelphia Orchestra was a great learning experience for me.”

For his Ravinia recital, Chen is dialing up John Corigliano’s Sonata for Violin and Piano on the recommendation of Ravinia president and CEO Welz Kauffman—not only in honor of the composer’s 80th birthday in 2018, but also because it dovetails with the previous month’s program of film music with Tim Fain, as Corigliano is well known for his scores to The Red Violin and Altered States, and because the composer wrote it for his father, the longtime New York Philharmonic concertmaster under Leonard Bernstein, whose centennial will be widely celebrated at Ravinia over the next two summers. Chen’s program also will include music by Mozart and Brahms and “a little Kreisler.”

Chen plays chamber music regularly, including performances at retirement homes and private homes with his family. Their quartet features his wife, Laura Chen, also a violinist, and their two teenaged children, Beatrice on viola and Noah on cello.

“Music is so consuming in our house,” Chen says. “It’s a journey for us as a family, and it gives the kids an opportunity to perform so that they get used to it.”

Playing chamber music also refreshes Chen’s approach to his orchestral work.

“Playing in an orchestra, especially one of the Chicago Symphony’s caliber, is a great privilege,” Chen says. “But one can, at times, take that for granted. Of course in an orchestra you’re playing with other people, but with chamber music you get to make certain musical choices you don’t get to make in an orchestra. Chamber music forces you to really, truly listen, to examine your own playing. A solo recital takes it one step further. It’s a challenge, and one needs these goals as a musician to stay vibrant and energized. Chamber music is a very important facet in any musician’s existence. I’m very excited about the recital at Ravinia.” 

Wynne Delacoma was classical music critic for the Chicago Sun-Times from 1991 to 2006 and has been an adjunct journalism faculty member at Northwestern University. She is a freelance music critic, writer, and lecturer.