Interview with Violinist Ray Chen

November 4, 2019, 4:03 PM · Violinist Ray Chen and pianist Julio Elizalde get along so well musically and personally, you could call their relationship a "bromance" (I mean, they do!).

Over the next week, the two of them will be giving a series of recitals across North America, at Los Angeles' Walt Disney Concert Hall, Toronto's Koerner Hall at The Royal Conservatory and at Houston's Wortham Center.

Ray Chen and Julio Elizalde
Violinist Ray Chen with pianist Julio Elizalde. Photo by Carlin Ma Photography

But their relationship did not start off so smoothly. "Actually, in the beginning, it went really badly!" Chen told me, speaking over the phone last month from Korea, on his way to the airport. "We hated each other in the beginning. I think it's because we both have very strong opinions on how the music should go."

For their first performances together back in about 2012, Elizalde had joined Chen toward the end of a recital tour. Among other things, they were playing the Franck Sonata. Just a few years before, Chen had won first prize 2008 International Yehudi Menuhin Violin Competition and the 2009 Queen Elisabeth Competition, and he'd actually recorded some of the works that he and Elizalde were now playing together for the first time. Elizalde had come highly recommended by Juilliard professor Lewis Kaplan.

"I had already played the program for a couple of years, and by the time Julio jumped on board, it was towards the end," Chen said. He had chosen Elizalde because "I didn't want just an 'accompanist,' I wanted a collaborator, an equal partner, someone who could add to the music, and he could do that," Chen said. "But I was just not used to so much pushback at rehearsal," he said, laughing, "I also wanted it my way!"

Both musicians reached a point where they were stewing with resentment. They'd played two concerts, and they had one more to go. "We'd already agreed to it, so I was thinking, we're just done after this!" Chen said. But right before the start of that final concert, Chen had a change of heart. "I was listening to the archival recording of the second concert, and I realized, this really doesn't sound so bad," Chen said.

At rehearsal, Chen had kept asking Elizalde to play softer. Elizalde pushed back. "I remember at one point he said, 'Well do you want me to do what Franck says, or do you want me to do what you say?' And I thought, 'This is my concert, so do what I say!' The atmosphere was not collaborative, let's say!"

When Chen listened to the recording of their performance together, he had a revelation. "The way Julio plays is assertive, but it's never overpowering. He's very careful with how much pedal he uses," Chen said. In other words, Elizalde was not playing too loudly. "He plays with such clarity, and because I didn't know any better at the time, it sounded to me like he was just playing really loud. There was just no sense of trust." Hearing how good the performance actually sounded in the recording, Chen realized that he could, and should, trust Elizalde.

At that point, 20 minutes before the concert was to begin, "we literally had an Oprah moment together," Chen said. "I had clarity, and I guess he had clarity, and we hugged it out. Then we went and played an amazing concert, and since then, each concert has been better and better." By now it's been about eight years, and they still love playing together. "It's crazy, we've become really close friends. You'll notice, there's an instant camaraderie between us, and we like we'd like to talk to the audience. We have a really great time."

For this week's recital series, Chen and Elizalde will be playing works by Grieg, Saint-Saëns, Bach, Debussy and Ravel.

"This recital program is kind of the 'best-of' all the recital programs we've ever done," Chen said, "we just wanted to make a blockbuster recital program."

Saint-Saëns' Sonata for Violin & Piano No. 1 in D minor, Op. 75 appealed because it gives both musicians a challenge. "Both sides have to be equally brilliant," Chen said. "The final movement - it's like a deathtrap! It's so virtuosic - and it's virtuosic in unison, too. You're both playing at the same (breakneck) speed at the same time -- it's wild and exciting, and so we wanted to bring that to audiences."

Chen also will play solo for one piece -- the famous "Chaconne" from Bach's Partita No. 2 in D minor.

"It's such an emotional piece," Chen said. "You hear it and it strikes you right there, in the heart, it's so powerful. That piece was always kind of special for me -- I didn't want to play it until later," Chen said. "I learned all the other Bach Sonatas and Partitas first, and then I was saving it for later - like saving it for marriage, I'm saving it for marriage, okay?" he laughed. Only after he had won the Queen Elisabeth Competition did he feel worthy of learning it. "I'm still learning it -- it's definitely something that you add layers of depth to, with each passing year." The Chaconne is in three sections: a great struggle, then a redemption, and then acceptance. "So first there's a bit of hell, then a bit of heaven, and then the third part is acceptance. It's powerful." The third section, while it echos the first, is different -- somehow it bears the experience of having gone through the struggles of the first two sections.

"You had to go through that, in order to come to that conclusion of the third part," Chen said. It reminds him of some wisdom from conductor Christoph Eschenbach, with whom Chen recorded works by Mozart in 2014: "He said to me that when there's a repeat in music, even if it's a big section with a repeat marked at the end, or in Mozart where phrases are often repeated: you never play it the same. The reason is not just to be different, but because by that time you are already 30 seconds, or a minute, older and wiser. How profound is that? That's how I face music, in a way."

In a recital, what can possibly follow something as weighty as Bach's Chaconne?

"I thought, I can't punch more," Chen said. He decided on Debussy's "Clair de Lune," a piano piece that nonetheless many violinists have embraced, including David Oistrakh, whose live recording from 1962 with pianist Frida Bauer is a favorite for Chen. "It's an extremely delicate, extremely beautiful, visceral, ethereal piece. It's the opposite way of touching people: touching people's hearts. Then after that, the Ravel Tzigane - something wild, something fun."

Chen is known for being a classical musician with enormous outreach on social media, and the last time he was in Los Angeles was for the culmination of his Play with Ray project. The project invited students and amateurs to submit videos of themselves playing the first violin part to the Bach Double, and from those videos Chen chose three finalists from around the world to travel to Los Angeles. One was chosen to "play with Ray" at the Hollywood Bowl, in concert with the Los Angeles Philharmonic.

"I'm looking forward to bringing 'Play with Ray' to other cities around the world," Chen said, adding that he would likely do different repertoire each time. "It's about participation, and it also showcases the city." And although only three of the 800+ people who submitted videos were chosen to to LA for the Hollywood Bowl performance, the very act of creating and submitting the video was a form of participation that hopefully encouraged people in their playing. "I'd love to bring that to other places, and I have a few in mind, but nothing concrete yet."

Something else that happened last summer was the passing of Chen's great mentor, Aaron Rosand at the age of 92. Rosand taught Chen when he was an undergraduate at the Curtis Institute in Philadelphia.

"He made a huge impact in my life," Chen said. Even in his 80s, Rosand was astonishing -- "his way of playing - his sound, his tone, and especially his right arm. He was so inspiring. And he would always just do it right in front of you. You'd be practicing all week long, or maybe longer, and you thought you're ready -- then he'd just whip out his instrument right in front of you and just play it, and it was jaw dropping. That very act in itself was inspiring and terrifying at the same time."

"So many of the lessons that he taught -- I learned much later," Chen said. "Things he was saying all those years ago, they still apply. I'm still processing it, even now. I wouldn't say that that's normal; it's quite incredible actually."

"But it was tough. He came from a different time," Chen said. "I feel like now we're coming back to that, where individualism in playing is more important, where being the interpreter is more important. We're living in a day and age where creativity is devalued more than ever, because of the technological advancements we've made. Those have blurred the lines between what is creative, and what is just entertaining." An iPhone allows us access to the entire library of everything on Spotify, or iTunes. "That's not really creative, right? That's just having access." Yet it causes people to be complacent about imagining what they really want. "I feel like it's up to those who are truly creative to create things that we don't know that we want until they are created. That is the mindset that I want to aim for, as an artist."

"Because I feel like classical music is not always creative. It's actually the opposite of creative, for the most part, because the way we study and the way we learn. With practice, it's all about what you can't do," Chen said. "Most of the people who are too creative early on, and do it through their playing, are shut down: No you can't play Bach like that. You can't play Mozart like that."

Chen said he looks to people such as Yo-Yo Ma, and even the late Yehudi Menuhin, as good examples of how live a creative life in the classical world.

"One of my biggest idols is Yo-Yo Ma -- he's incredibly creative, and he's an ambassador for classical music. Yehudi Menuhin was also like that. He was happy to cross into other worlds, into other fields," he said. "It was not necessary at the time, but he did it anyway. He saw a greater vision than simply walking on stage, performing, and then walking off again. Now we need this creatively more than ever."

To that end, the concert is never over when it's over, for Chen. He stays to sign autographs and take selfies with audience members after every concert.

Ray with fan
From Ray Chen's Instagram: taking a selfie with a young fan.

And then after that, he "unboxes" the letters and gifts he has received from fans, and often makes a video about it. Chen said that his younger fans often want to communicate with him, and right after the concert "there's not enough time, or they're usually really nervous at the signing line," Chen said. "Some of them give me a letter, and I'm happy to receive that and I read all of them. And sometimes they want to add a little extra something like a local gift - for example, in Australia, Tim Tams, or over in Japan, mochi cakes. It's just a way of remembering that occasion. Also, I love it! "(he laughs) "I try to show my appreciation every time, so that's why you see some videos on Instagram."

Why does he go to so much trouble do to this?

"It would be so easy, after a performance, to simply go to the restaurant, or go back to the hotel and chill. Just like it would be so easy to not do social media, not make all these videos. It would be so easy to just play the violin. Heck, it would be even easier just to stay at home! But each time that you think that, where does it stop?" Chen said. "It's a way of showing gratitude to the audiences, and to show gratitude to those people who are willing to stand in line. I mean, it's easy for them to go home, why should they stand in that line, too? Why should they even come to the concert? Right now they could just sit at home and listen to me on YouTube, or on Spotify. There's no need."

"If everyone starts thinking that, then I guess we won't have an audience," Chen said. "It will be exactly like it'll be exactly like 2008, when there were all these articles about classical music dying. I felt like we were in such a dark time. Even five years ago, people weren't using social media in the classical music world. I mean, I know ( was). But I would say that artists weren't. But people have quickly caught on. When one person does it then everyone feel like it's okay, this is what we need to do. Everything was around before 2014 - but nobody wanted to risk until they saw someone else do it."

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November 5, 2019 at 04:54 PM · I love Ray's description of Bach's Chaconne.

November 5, 2019 at 05:58 PM · Me too, and it resonates with me as very true.

November 6, 2019 at 02:46 PM · Ray's description of Chaconne is almost verbatim what I picture the piece as. Bach comes full circle on that final long unison note, it's heart wrenching really.

November 6, 2019 at 04:39 PM · Wonderful interview! I really enjoyed the Eschenbach comment. And I'm so appreciative of Chen's generosity to his fans. (By the way, Chen simply cannot take a bad photo! How is that even possible???)

November 7, 2019 at 02:03 AM · The fact that he didn't study the Chaconne until after he won the QE speaks to his discipline and the wisdom of his professors as he was developing his career. If learning the Chaconne isn't going to help you win a top international competition, then -- by definition -- it's a waste of effort. When you make the transition from competitor to artist, then you can (and must) entertain different priorities.

November 11, 2019 at 09:30 PM · I hadn't listened as much to Ray Chen's performances, up to this point, as I had listened to Hilary Hahn's and Josh Bell's, for instance. So I recently clicked on some of Chen's offerings on YouTube -- the VCs of Mendelssohn, Tchaikovsky, Sibelius. Very favorably impressed with his tone, pacing, and phrasing. These are performances I would gladly hear again.

One of my best accompanists, toward the end of my student years, was somewhat like Julio Elizalde, as described above -- definitely a collaborator -- and even resembled him quite a bit. He was the extroverted type who never hesitated to make constructive suggestions on interpretation and how to communicate with an audience -- ready to give me a little "push" when needed. With his help, I found better encouragement and teamwork than I would have gotten from plenty of other pianists. If only there were more of this type.

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