Concert review: Technical brilliance and humour from violinist Ray Chen

Taiwanese-Australian violinist Ray Chen opened the programme with Alexander Borodin's Overture to Prince Igor and the playing was robust and fluent.
Taiwanese-Australian violinist Ray Chen opened the programme with Alexander Borodin's Overture to Prince Igor and the playing was robust and fluent.PHOTO: TOM DOMS

review/concert

SSO GALA CONCERT: RAY CHEN

Singapore Symphony Orchestra, Singapore National Youth Orchestra - Andrew Litton (conductor), Ray Chen (violinist)

Esplanade Concert Hall

Friday (March 15)


This was a concert that was made to please: a superstar guest violinist, an all-Russian programme, Singapore's top young musicians playing with the Singapore Symphony Orchestra (SSO), sizzling encores - with stand-up comedy as a bonus.

It could have been a confused mishmash, or a brilliant night out. Thanks to SSO principal guest conductor Andrew Litton and the multi-talented Taiwanese-Australian violinist Ray Chen, it was an evening of music-making of the first order.

Litton had the first laugh for the evening when he announced in jest that Chen was unable to play, sending a flutter through the audience.

After he reassured the audience that the violinist was indeed well and performing as scheduled, he opened the programme with Alexander Borodin's Overture To Prince Igor. His conducting showed no hint that he was adjusting his interpretation or approach for the younger players from the Singapore National Youth Orchestra (SNYO). Indeed, the playing was robust and fluent.

Tchaikovsky's Fifth Symphony in the second half is a rite of passage for any youth orchestra member. In a performance that emphasised excitement over expressiveness, Litton's clear direction and well-shaped lines brought clean string playing, excellent wind chorales and some raucously loud climaxes from the combined orchestra.

SSO principal Han Chang Chou played most melodiously in the second movement, in what must be the most famous of all orchestral horn passages, and his counterpart Ma Yue (clarinet) brought great character to Tchaikovsky's opening theme. The SNYO players on second clarinet and third horn were not eclipsed, and distinguished themselves in their parts.

When Chen came on stage for Prokofiev's Violin Concerto No. 2, his playing was steady, precise and intense, and combined with exquisite lyricism. The 30-year old winner of the Yehudi Menuhin and Queen Elisabeth competitions is known for spicing up his appearances with stand-up comedy and light-hearted banter, but it is not to cover up any lack of depth in musicality.

In the swift succession of contrasting episodes of the opening movement, he showed a chameleon-like ability to switch character. The final movement from him was spectacular, and he was well aided by Litton, who directed an agile, ever-alert orchestra. This movement also shows off the percussion section, and the SNYO percussionist on snare drum played particularly well.

Chen pacified his fans with two encores, which were prefaced by some of his vintage stand-up comedy banter. First was his own delightful set of variations based on Waltzing Matilda, followed by Paganini's Caprice No. 21. They were technically impressive and highly musical.

What proved to be a bonus was his witty chatter, which included references to his Australian upbringing and his accent.