REVIEW: Violinist Laura Kukkonen, 18, Plays with Ray Chen and LA Phil at Hollywood Bowl

August 9, 2019, 6:47 PM · Violinist Laura Kukkonen, 18, of Helsinki, Finland was living the dream for a lot of young violinists, when she walked out onto the Hollywood Bowl stage on Thursday night for her premiere performance there. Superstar violinist Ray Chen had just announced that she was the winner of the "Play with Ray" competition, and in minutes she would be playing the first movement of the J.S. Bach's Concerto in D minor for Two Violins (the "Bach Double") with Chen and the Los Angeles Philharmonic.

Laura Kukkonen
Laura Kukkonen walks onto the Hollywood Bowl stage. Photo by Craig Mathew/Mathew Imaging at the Hollywood Bowl, provided courtesy of the Los Angeles Philharmonic Association.

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.

Ray Chen and Laura Kukkonen
Laura Kukkonen and Ray Chen play Bach Double. Photo by Craig Mathew/Mathew Imaging at the Hollywood Bowl, provided courtesy of the Los Angeles Philharmonic Association.

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!

Ray with finalists
After performing: Adriana Bec, Ray Chen, Laura Kukkonen and Youngji Kim. Photo by Craig Mathew/Mathew Imaging at the Hollywood Bowl, provided courtesy of the Los Angeles Philharmonic Association

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.

Laurie Niles Ray Chen
Selfie: editor Laurie Niles and violinist Ray Chen.

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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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August 10, 2019 at 01:07 AM · What a wonderful thing for him to do! And, the video will be a gift that keeps on giving.

August 10, 2019 at 04:00 AM · Thanks for the review, Laurie! Congrats to Laura Kukkonen who gave a wonderful performance! (Along with Ray and the LA Phil of course)

August 10, 2019 at 04:11 PM · I enjoyed it. But I wonder if selecting someone who is a winner of another major competition is really consistent with the “promise” of “amateur only”.

August 10, 2019 at 05:36 PM · Thanks, Jean, I've embedded the video of the concert into the story now!

David, I think she won the other competition when she was 11...She definitely seems to aspire to be a professional player, but I don't think that should disqualify her from a competition of non-professionals at this point.

August 10, 2019 at 07:11 PM · I think she is a fine player and I wish her the best.

This “competition” was perceived to be different from others because it gave the impression ( which we now know is false!) that non-professionals, that is, amateurs, have a chance. Some people feel that they wouldn’t have entered this “competition” if they knew they will compete with prodigies.

August 11, 2019 at 10:04 AM · In addition to what David Zhang mentioned,it is also stated that Laura has performed as a soloist with the Helsinki Philharmonic Orchestra in 2012.

Besides,the other 2 candidates are also just as well established. Which in itself is contrary to what was set out from the publicity that it was not about how good a video should be or how high level a skill the candidate possess to be able to have a viable opportunity in this unconventional competition.

This in the end is no difference from a traditionl violin competition, worse still, one that lacks integrity in what it orginially set out to achieve.


August 11, 2019 at 02:46 PM · David Zhang--Like!

August 12, 2019 at 06:14 AM · I'm not going to dismiss Ms. Kukkonen's accomplishment -- she was competing against other pre-professional violinists, because that's how the rules were set up, so it's still a big feather in her cap.

But here are my thoughts on Frieda's question:

I do recognize that there are amateurs with performance degrees, and who have competed in major competitions before choosing a different career. But I would argue that, because participating in international competitions and studying violin performance at degree level are clearly pre-professional activities, someone who has recently done one of these things should be disqualified from an amateur competition. Again, the key word is "recently." I would set a minimum waiting period after participating in an international competition or being enrolled in a performance degree program -- say, two or three years. I think that type of rule would eliminate the people who are on the cusp of being professionals, while still allowing highly accomplished amateurs to compete.

I would apply the same waiting period to former professional violinists, i.e. a waiting period of two or three years after the last year in which the majority of their earned income came from performing and/or teaching.

A two-year waiting period after participating in international competitions or violin performance degree programs would have disqualified two of the three finalists.

(Just a side note: The amateur division of the Van Cliburn piano competition has a minimum age limit of 35. I think this is unnecessarily strict. If a hypothetical competitor earns a performance degree and then goes to medical school, for example, I don't think it's unfair to allow that person to participate in amateur competitions at age 24.)

August 13, 2019 at 12:06 AM · I'm Adriana's violin teacher. She submitted her video as a 12 year old girl and became the only U.S. contestant.

I was there, in L.A. to support and watch the process unfold. It seemed to me that the three girls were each very good examples of students at three VERY different stages of life:

Adriana: Just starting to experience life on a good full-size violin (she submitted her application on a workshop violin)

Laura: Getting ready to enter a degree program

Youngji: Getting ready to continue a musical education at a prestigious university.

I personally think it would be unfair to label any of the finalists as "established." It's one thing to participate in some competitions, and it's wholly another to win an orchestral job or launch a solo career. There's some ridiculously low number: Violinist David Jacobson, in "Lost Secrets of Master Musicians," estimates conservatively that theres a 4% chance of a conservatory grad winning an orchestra job over an 8 year period. The soloist path in comparison, is like winning the lottery.

Maybe the suggestions regarding age categories would lead to an event with multiple age categories in the future. Who knows.

The expectation that this event be perfect and please everyone on the first run was an unfair and impossible expectation.

The selection process seemed to be a mix of L.A. Phil employees (marketing and musicians), as well as Ray Chen's input. Although that process could have been more open (one could say the same about ALL competitions), there was no reason to believe that there was any ill or careless intention in the selection process for this event, which apparently was about a year in the making. Everything seemed very thoughtful and professional.

Comparing the three girls was like comparing apples to oranges, and I don't envy the team of people or person (it seemed like a group decision), that had to choose one student to solo with Ray. In fact, the reality of the week and the advertisement of the contest were really two different things:

All of the girls participated in a long masterclass, followed by a trial of the Guadagnini violins.

There wasn't really an official "competition" moment.

They attended dinner and a concert with Ray Chen at the Hollywood Bowl.

They attended a Universal Studios tour with both Ray AND his parents for an entire day.

They attend a very long lunch at a prestigious private club, and had the opportunity to pick his brain about his developing life as a soloist, his experience at Queen Elizabeth, and his experience at Curtis.

In many ways, Ray designed the week to be an extremely positive and supportive week for all three of the girls, and I believe they all came away feeling supported.

The actual importance of the performance was somewhat deprioritized, and it was a kind gesture to let the remaining finalists play in the section of the L.A. Phil. That was was an effort to be as inclusive as possible.

As far as I could tell, that was Ray's goal: to demonstrate there there is a positive, supportive way to run a competitive event, involve a huge number of people, and score ridiculously good PR points along way. Props to Ray for taking the time and personal risk to making this event happen so early in his career, when many young touring violinists are focused solely on their concert schedule and bolstering their musical reputations.

I sincerely hope that Ray's support of young/amatuer musicians is contagious, and that more events like "Play with Ray" crop up. There's no reason that they cannot, and from my perspective as a professional player and witness, it was a very good first run. Look up the videos and articles on Ray Chen visiting indigenous Taiwan, and there too, he stepped out of his comfort zone to support young musicians. Ray clearly has a sense of purpose and a sense of selfless generosity.

Rather than lodge criticism upon the event, I hope most can look on it as a step towards a supportive tide in violin playing that raises all boats:

-The finalists gain some esteem

-The finalists are supported in a non-cutthroat manner in what was essentially a workshop week

-The public is involved, including the 800 submissions. It's motivating, at the very least.

-The spectacle of it draws in a greater crowd and draws attention to both L.A. Phil and Ray Chen, in addition to the finalists.

Certainly, I knew many people who via "Play with Ray," were watching a live-streamed classical concert for the very first time.

Perhaps we should be looking at the crowd of other popular soloists and asking:

Well, what have *you* done for young/amatuer musicians? What have you done for classical music that goes viral on social media, that engages a generation?

"Play with Ray" was an absolutely brilliant step in the right direction, and I urge the critical voices among us to look at the big picture.

August 13, 2019 at 03:39 AM · I would respectfully submit that the reason "Play With Ray" got so much publicity was precisely that it did not appear to be only about "supporting young musicians." The way it was advertised, it seemed to fill the space that the amateur Van Cliburn does for the piano, in recognizing the efforts of adult amateurs and dispelling the notion that learning music is only for the young. From the perspective of many adult amateurs, it seems like all the opportunities for decent training or recognition have age limits, even things as simple as starting beginner-level lessons. So to talk about how great it was for young musicians ignores the whole point of the criticism -- in fact it only seems to reinforce a culture that consistently discourages adult amateurs and late starters. The disappointment is precisely that it ended up being purely an opportunity for young musicians, when it was publicized as an opportunity for people who would not have the chance to enter traditional competitions.

This is not to diminish the finalists' accomplishment, because the competition obviously included many others like them. (For the record, I thought Adriana was the one finalist who clearly met the "amateur" requirement, and was hoping she would win after the finalists were announced.)

August 13, 2019 at 05:44 AM · Not every talented or gifted amateur, regardless of entry leanring point is as privileged as the 3 candidates to begin with. If the publicity video stated that it was as simple as that of a video clip from the comforts of anyone's home.

If one were to honestly scrutinize the video submissions, you will realize the vast disparity. Not every gifted or talented individual may have access to a fine teacher, a fine instrument (be it a factory-made or hand-crafted violin), much less a reasonably good recording environment and equipment to begin with. There could also be individuals who do not go through conventional classess or learning nor be given a chance at traditional competitions nor performance opportunities.

I would honestly have picked one of the 3 finialist, along maybe a different gender younger child, an older individual (either an elderly or a person who has since revisited the instrument). I think this might have appeased the negative backlash to this whole event that has been very much watched globally.

If Tarisio had kindly sponsored the violin, them all being full sized, then it is telling that the final candidate needs to be an individual who is at least switching up in size or using the full sized violin. Many young children may just go away with a cheated feeling that they will never have an opportunity to begin with. And leaving the parents in great attempts to follow up with encouraging the young individuals on.

I think the competition may have a good intent but had failed to examine the can of worms it inevitably opened up in the course of its open ended criteria.

Please be more specific in the manner in which the publicity is done. Do not give false hopes to individuals who try as it can be taken as a gimmick at the end of the day.

Please spare a thought for those who might have put in their heart, soul and mind given their limitations and be faced with much negative repercussion. Especially when many would have been inspired by Ray Chen who is a very thoughtful young artiste who has a heart to nurture the younger generations to come.

August 13, 2019 at 11:23 AM · If this is not a competition - then why are there finalists? Why is there a winner?

If this is a competition with integrity - why has some of the finalists deleted their earlier instagram as well as youtube posts ( featuring themselves already having many opportunities playing with orchestras), upon the release of results and receiving negative responses from the public? This is just way too coincidental.

Besides, i personlly find the organiser very unprofessional - yes, this being the 1st run, with hiccups, though not obligated, should at the very least come forth to at least say they will work on their shortcomings. But it has not been done so since.

It appears to be very unfortunate that the orginal wonderful intent is marred by all these issues.

August 13, 2019 at 12:29 PM · There just *wasn't* an age requirement. So if you got lapped by a teenager, please get over it. Like the others, I kind of "read into" the contest publicity and thought that it was going to be sort of like the amateur Van Cliburn. But this was the first event of its kind that I can recall. It's impossible to anticipate every issue that might arise. Surely Mr. Chen and the LA Phil are aware of the criticism and -- who knows -- maybe they are cooking up something that would be a little more adult-friendly. One thing we're learning here is that everyone's definition of "amateur" is a little different. I won a competition in 7th grade (I was 12 years old). The sponsor was the local Rotary Club or such. There were three competitors. I got a "scholarship" of a few hundred dollars to attend summer camp at Blue Lake as my prize. I also played in many "Solo and Ensemble Festival" events as a child. Would that exclude me from "Playing with Ray?" I hope not. In fact, the girl who came in second in the scholarship contest, a flute player in my grade, told me I shouldn't have entered the contest because my parents could afford to send me to Blue Lake without the scholarship!

What would your criteria be?

Over the age of 30?

Did not major in music performance or music education in college?

Do not generate more than 10% of your income through musical performance or teaching?

Never invited to audition for a salaried orchestra job?

August 13, 2019 at 01:48 PM · To be fair, I think Ray Chen is active supporting developing musicians at all levels - not just these who are clearly among the cream of their generation.

A couple of years ago the holiday orchestra my daughter joined somehow managed to engage Ray to play the Mendelsohn concerto with them. (I don't know how they did it, I assume there must have been an anonymous benefactor). He did not just sweep in for the event but spent a whole three days working with the orchestra and providing incredible motivation to that bunch of teenagers.

They rotated violinists between sections for the different works in the final concert, and for the Mendelsohn my daughter was in the seconds which were positioned opposite the firsts; she was convinced that every time Ray looked round towards the conductor he made eye contact with her checking she was doing her very very best.

All in all a fantastically memorable occasion for her, and of course her selfie with Ray has pride of place on her bedroom wall.

August 13, 2019 at 02:10 PM · There is definitely no qualms about what Ray Chen intended the event to be.

It is just unfortunate that the manner in which the publicity is done, what defines amatuer (a person who engages in a pursuit,on an unpaid rather than a professional basis / a person who is incompetent or inept at a particular activity.) appears arbitrary and has resulted in things going awry.

Worse still, how the finalists and their teacher conduct themselves throughout the announcement of the results...deleting of instagram and youtube posts...of all their past accolades...what is there to hide or evade?

August 13, 2019 at 02:55 PM · I can see both sides of this debate, and I appreciate Mr. Zerweck's insights as someone with greater knowledge and a stake in the outcome. I do wonder why they only played one movement of the Bach, though.

August 13, 2019 at 03:55 PM · I think the first movement because we've all played that. The second movement is very long. I bet 10% or fewer of amateurs have even cracked the third movement open on their stands. Too bad because it's really interesting (especially the counterpoint on the second page in my opinion) but there it is.

Frieda wrote, "I don’t think the LA Phil was marketing the event to mainly adult amateurs." No, I don't think so either -- in hindsight this seems quite obvious considering the finalists they chose. It's what we read into the publicity ourselves.

Next time the criterion should be: Suzuki teachers who have started at least 100 beginners.

August 13, 2019 at 05:25 PM · Let no good deed go unpunished! Kudos to Ray Chen and the LA Phil!

August 14, 2019 at 01:45 AM · Hey I’m a Suzuki teacher who has started 100+ beginners! Never thought of it that way, actually. Many of my fellow teaching colleagues would fit that category as well. And, we’d probably all give the opportunity to Play with Ray to one of our students, if given the chance!

P.S. Some of those beginners were adults!

August 14, 2019 at 02:05 AM · I like the spirit displayed by Laurie - and this encapsulates the positive attitudes how teachers and potential candidates of such competition should adopt. If one already has ample opportunities, be magnanimous and BIG hearted to others who may be disadvantaged in various ways a genuine chance at trying!

End of day, it has been a wonderful experience to witness what true musicianship entails. It is not just how well an individual plays or communicates on the instrument but a wholesome package of character behind the individual!

For the organizers - it is about honouring your word to make a good intent upkept well to the end in achieveing its awesome goals.

August 14, 2019 at 02:10 AM · If i were the organizer - i would at least give a certificate of participation to each individual who had participated in this Play with Ray to encourage everyone on through this experience!

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