Ray Chen plays Mendelssohn: a music review by Alan Slade

August 19, 2022 by Alan Slade
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Ray Chen, the Taiwan-born Australian violinist who came with his parents to Brisbane as an infant, played his 1715 Stradivarius “Joachim” violin in a spectacular rendition of Felix Mendelssohn’s E-minor concerto with the Sydney Symphony Orchestra and guest conductor, New Zealand’s Gemma New, in the Thursday afternoon series in the just-reopened concert hall of Sydney’s Opera House.

Ray Chen

The revamped concert hall was close to 100% occupancy, with a significant portion comprising school pupils from Baulkham Hills and James Ruse schools.

The most noticeable features of the renovation are the lotus blossom deflectors above the tiered orchestra platform and the sculpting of wood-panelled cladding, all designed to enhance the sound quality.

This audience member believes the designers succeeded. After a brief modern piece, Clockwerk, by Maria Grenfell, Ray Chen joined the orchestra.

The chemistry between soloist Chen, conductor New and the SSO was obvious. From the violin’s entry early in the first movement to the development of Mendelssohn’s magnificent melodies, soloist and orchestra blended and contrasted perfectly. One could imagine Mendelssohn’s ghost perched on one of the front four lotus leaves, his legs casually swaying to the music, and an approving smile on his face.

The program notes mention that maestro Chen’s violin is named for one of its former owners, Joseph Joachim, who was the second soloist, following Ferdinand David, to perform the piece in 1845 (could it have been on the same violin?). One could imagine Antonio Stradivari sitting on the leaf next to Mendelssohn, approving Ray Chen’s treatment of his instrument.

Gemma New’s vigorous conducting style brought out the best in the wonderful SSO, giving individual members prominence with their solo passages during the performance and acknowledgement during the audience’s enthusiastic applause.

The audience was so impressed with the first movement that some applause burst out despite the concerto being played (as written) with no pause between movements. Ray Chen’s facial expressions and body movements matched the tempo and mood of the passages, climaxing in the final Allegro, which saw the soloist and conductor virtually dancing. Ray Chen’s joyous smiles during the scherzo-like passages and his serious visage during quieter and melodious parts enhanced the experience. After four curtain calls to enthusiastic audience appreciation, Ray Chen expressed his joy at “being back” and treated us to his variations for solo violin on an Aussie theme – Waltzing Matilda. Another ghost appeared on the third lotus petal – Nicolo Paganini, who would have approved of maestro Chen’s treatment of the folk song. The concert concluded with Beethoven’s Fourth Symphony.

The concert will be repeated on Sunday, August 21 at 2pm. If you miss out seeing him in person, you can see his 2015 performance with the Gothenburg Symphony Orchestra and Maestro Kent Nagan.

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or enjoy his facial expressions and dance movements in the third movement

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2 Responses to “Ray Chen plays Mendelssohn: a music review by Alan Slade”
  1. Kok Tsun Hin says:

    Instead of usual romantic and lyrical interpretation of this famous concerto,
    Ray Chen performed this popular music with dramatic and energetic approach. In his words “more classical rather than romantic” real German style.
    The Joachim got a relatively bigger/brighter tone than other Stradivarius which suits his masculine style. Glad to see another super star artist in Australia.

  2. Liat Kirby says:

    What an amazing performance!

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