‘Hottest violinist alive’ taps social media

Taiwanese- Australian violinist Ray Chen is reaching out to young people on social media to change their perception of classical music as uncool.
Taiwanese- Australian violinist Ray Chen is reaching out to young people on social media to change their perception of classical music as uncool.PHOTO: TOM DOMS

As violinist Ray Chen raises the window blinds in his room, he declares chirpily: “Ah, so ready to practise.”

An intense montage follows: brows furrowed, he picks through his scores, sets up his stand and rosins his bow to give it a better grip. Then, finally, he shoulders his violin.

Seconds later, he ends up facedown in bed, exhausted from the sheer effort of getting ready.

This is just one of the short, quirky videos that Chen, 27, born in Taiwan and raised in Australia, has on his social media pages in a bid to get young people warmed up to the idea of classical music.

It seems to have paid off. He has made a name for himself in classical music, topping both the International Yehudi Menuhin Violin Competition and Queen Elisabeth Music Competition, and releasing critically acclaimed albums with Sony.

  • BOOK IT / SSO SUBSCRIPTION CONCERT: RAY CHEN PLAYS BRUCH

  • WHERE: Esplanade Concert Hall, 1 Esplanade Drive

    WHEN: Nov 3, 7.30pm

    ADMISSION: $15 to $78 from Sistic (call 6348-5555 or go to www.sistic.com.sg)

That’s not all. He has also made fans out of unsuspecting netizens – even nabbing the stamp of approval from Buzzfeed, which last year deemed him “officially the hottest violinist alive”.

One of his goals as an artist, he tells The Straits Times ahead of his concert here, is to build a strong, personal relationship with the audience – something the Internet makes easier than ever.

“Before, when artists visited a city, audiences might not have heard much about them other than through the occasional article or CD release,” he says.

“Now people have the ability to take their audiences with them through their travels, not only keeping in touch, but also shaping the very face of classical music itself.

“Artists and audiences can now grow and experience new things together. Isn’t it simply amazing?”

He will perform with the Singapore Symphony Orchestra (SSO) at the Esplanade Concert Hall on Nov 3, under the baton of guest conductor Andrew Litton.

The orchestra’s senior programmes manager Kua Li Leng says: “The SSO is always on the lookout for rising stars to perform with, to introduce new faces to the Singaporean audience.” Chen played with the SSO in 2014 and the orchestra had also invited Chinese pianist Lang Lang more than a decade ago, when he was only 15.

At the upcoming concert, Chen will take on Copland’s An Outdoor Overture, Bruch’s Violin Concerto No. 1 and Prokofiev’s Symphony No. 5.

He has proved himself capable of taking on the works of composing greats from centuries past with flair. But, with his videos, he also proves classical music does not have to be dated or stodgy.

Online, he shares clips of his music, creates short comic videos, doles out tips in engaging mini-masterclasses and offers behind-the scenes glimpses into life as a classical musician.

The classical music community, he admits, is often overlooked by young people, who shrug it off as unrelatable or uncool or perceive it as being too arrogant.

But Chen says: “I’m constantly thinking up new ways to turn that around and social media has been helping a lot since it’s where everyone– especially young people–converges.

“By making various videos, often with humour and light-heartedness, I’ve been able to reach a lot of young people around the world who have learnt an instrument, but have probably never been to a classical music concert.”

Parents have reached out to him on Facebook and e-mail, telling him they have young children who are fans of his videos. Some plan to take them to one of his concerts to “see the other side of Ray Chen”.

These children are usually learning an instrument, but have never found a reason to watch a concert.

This, notes Chen, is common, in a time when the world of classical music is breaking into two groups: a small percentage of consistent concertgoers and a much larger group of people who learn instruments but “who feel they have nothing to do with the professional world of classical music and therefore do not participate in it”.

He says: “One of my biggest goals is to merge these two groups again.” And being connected to people through the Internet, he adds, is the greatest perk of being a musician today.

“Classical music has definitely become more democratic nowadays in the sense that people with creativity can now put up their content and gain access to new audiences,” he says. “Before, it’d have been virtually impossible to start a career without a team of agents, publicists and a record label.

“I actually see it as a great thing because it rewards the upcoming generation with exciting new possibilities for their creativity.”

While stereotypes of classical musicians abound – that they are uncool, nerdy and unsociable, among others – Chen says he has personally found musicians to be the exact opposite.

In his clips, he and his musician friends prank one another, challenge one another to drinking games and have a rollicking good time.

“Sure, we get nerdy about things relating to music, but since when was having a passion for something deemed negative? Honestly, I think the negative image of classical music is given by its own people.”

“The ‘stereotypes’ aren’t the problem. The real problem is the insecurity that surfaces frequently in the classical music industry. Once we stop putting ourselves down, classical music will have the chance to be fully comfortable and grow stronger. Positive energy is the key to success.”

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on October 04, 2016, with the headline '‘Hottest violinist alive’ taps social media'. Print Edition | Subscribe