For a little background, the Bach Double is a duet that most violinists know well, something that a violinist studies right on the cusp of becoming a more advanced player. In the violin pedagogy, the first movement parts appear in Suzuki Books 4 and 5, and most traditional students play the piece, too. A violinist is wise to memorize the Bach Double and keep in his or her repertoire; anywhere you go, you'll likely find others who can play it with you.
The piece's widespread familiarity may be one reason why Chen had always wanted to make a video of himself playing just one of the duet parts -- so that students and other violinists could play along with the video -- a "duet" with Chen.
But Chen also had bigger ideas for the Bach Double: What would it be like to allow aspiring violinists the chance to perform live with the real Ray, rather than just playing with Ray-on-video? That's where the LA Phil came in. In March, Chen and the LA Phil jointly announced the international Play with Ray Competition, open to non-professional violinists of all ages. Post a video, write an essay, and you could be flown to Los Angeles to play with Chen at the Hollywood Bowl.
So did anyone apply? Yes indeed: more than 800 people, ages 6 to 76, from 73 countries and six continents submitted videos of themselves performing the Bach Double alongside a video of Chen provided by the LA Phil. These were narrowed down to the three finalists who came to Los Angeles last week: besides Kukkonen were Adriana Bec, 13, of San Antonio, Texas; and Youngji Kim, 22, of Daegu, South Korea.
During the days leading up to the concert, the three finalists received the royal treatment: they had coachings with Chen and attended masterclasses and concerts with him. They even got to go to Universal Studios Hollywood with their moms (yes, Chen took his parents, too!), compliments of the LA Phil.
Tarisio provided rare violins and bows for them to try, and ultimately Kukkonen, who was chosen by Chen as the winner of the competition, picked a 1775 Guadagnini violin to play in the performance. Kukkonen had shown a high degree of commitment from the start, submitting a standout audition video of herself playing this piece, not just with the video of Chen, but with a string quartet of her peers. She also had some experience playing for a crowd -- in 2012 she performed as a soloist with the Helsinki Philharmonic Orchestra, and she also won 1st and 2nd place in the International Arthur Rubinstein Competition in 2013 and 2016, respectively. She studies violin with Réka Szilvay at the Sibelius Academy Youth Department.
If Kukkonen was nervous on Thursday, it didn't show.
Once Kukkonen took the stage, Chen and the orchestra burst right into the piece, with Chen playing the second violin part. A few minutes later, Kukkonen launched in with just as much vigor, playing the first violin part. Kukkonen's 1775 Guadagnini from Tarisio had a strong, rich sound -- a suitable counterpart to Chen's 1715 "Joachim" Stradivarius. One wonders how many times this 300-year-old piece has been played on these centuries-old instruments, and by how many violinists!
In addition to well-matched instruments, Kukkonen and Chen played with matching styles. With so many ways to play Bach, this is no small feat for duet partners coming from different parts of the globe. Without being in a "period" style, their performance definitely had Baroque touches -- the harpsichord in the orchestra, generous use of open strings, big-bellied long notes.
The performance was limited to the first movement of this three-movement piece, and at the conclusion, Kukkonen placed her hand over her heart as the audience rose to in a standing ovation.
And as it turned out, it wasn't just Kukkonen who got to "Play with Ray." The other finalists, Bek and Kim also played in this performance, but the audience did not realize this until the end, when the two violinists stood up -- they'd been sitting in the first violin section all along!
Though the "Play with Ray" announcement and performance was the big news of the night, the rest of Chen's performance in the concert is worth noting. After intermission, Chen played all four concertos from Vivaldi's "The Four Seasons," Op. 8. This music is so familiar, so ubiquitous, I braced for an overdose - but the feeling never came.
Chen played as if improvising this music, giving it a feeling of being newly discovered. He also showed many different facets of his musical personality: shredding like a rock star, spinning a delicate line, racing to the finish, or bringing the volume down to near-silence. Halfway into the first concerto, "La primavera" (spring) I noticed that the audience, which had been noisily munching on food, clanking wine glasses, checking their phones, whispering to one another -- seemed uniformly reeled-in by Ray. Heads were pointed toward the stage, phones went untouched, and all was still and silent but for the music.
Chen played this music like a storyteller, keeping drawing his audience in with each detail and every turn of the plot. Not surprisingly, Vivaldi's music makes for rich telling. (The program notes described the sonnets that Vivaldi wrote to accompany this music in great detail, though the actual sonnets were not printed.)
As an encore, Chen played "Waltzing Matilda," a virtuosic arrangement by Chen of this tune from his home country of Australia. (For your reference, Chen's CD, The Golden Age, features a quartet version of Waltzing Matilda.)
After the concert, I joined about 200 fans who waited in line as Chen greeted every one individually, taking selfies (hand your phone to Chen, he's an expert) and signing CDs and at least one teenager's denim jacket. He is definitely the king of outreach, online and in person! We can use that in the violin world.
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BTW if you would still like to "Play with Ray" and members of the LA Phil, here is the link to the video, in which he plays the second violin part, so you can play along with the first part. Even though the competition is over, I hope that the LA Phil continues to keep this page up as an educational tool for all violinists!
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