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Violinist Ray Chen brings vigorous enthusiasm to his San Francisco recital debut

Ray Chen peforming at the Apple Store in New York
Ray Chen peforming at the Apple Store in New York
by Jrs2150, from Wikimedia Commons (licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported license)

Last night at the SFJAZZ Center, the young violinist Ray Chen made his San Francisco recital debut in the annual “Gift Concert for Subscribers” presented by San Francisco Performances (SFP). He was accompanied by pianist Julio Elizalde, San Francisco native and graduate of the San Francisco Conservatory of Music, where he studied under Paul Hersh. This was Elizalde’s first appearance in an SFP event.

From the very first notes of the opening Allegro di molto movement of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart’s K. 305 sonata in A major, Chen was vigorously overt about his enthusiasm, perhaps even suggesting that “molto” was his favorite adverb. On the other hand K. 305 was composed in 1778, the year in which Mozart made his famous “job hunting” tour of Western Europe; and there is no shortage of look-what-I-can-do eagerness in that sonata’s rhetoric. As Mozart was trying to establish his career as a composer, so Chen is now trying to establish his career as a performer. Both of them understood that this required a “presentation of self” reinforced with positive energy, making both the sonata itself and Chen’s approach to performing it entirely appropriate for the occasion.

After that things began to get a bit unconventional. In a somewhat ingenuous monologue, Chen explained that the music of Pablo de Sarasate is generally relegated to encore status. However, he then continued to talk about his recent “discovery” of Ludwig van Beethoven’s Opus 47 (“Kreutzer”) sonata in A major and his determination to declare his enthusiasm for the composition by preparing it for performance. Arguing that “nothing can follow the ‘Kreutzer,’” he explained that he had arranged the program to “eat dessert first” with three Sarasate selections, devoting the entire second half to the Beethoven sonata.

(It goes without saying that audience response to the Beethoven prompted an encore. Chen took two of them. The first turned out to be more Sarasate!)

While it seems more than a little peculiar that Chen only developed an interest in Opus 47 after winning two major competitions (Yehudi Menuhin in 2008 and Queen Elizabeth in 2009), his claim is not out of the realm of possibility. He clearly enjoyed Beethoven’s capacity to harness intense energy, and he also seemed to enjoy that the piano was more of an equal partner than it had been in K. 305. Working more as a team, the duo was particularly good in establishing how the key moments sorted out into different levels of climax, thus giving focused forward-moving energy particularly to the opening and concluding movements, both designated Presto.

If there was any weakness, it surfaced in the set of variations in the middle movement. Chen tended to approach these as a one-thing-after-the-other succession of embellishing strategies applied to the opening theme without particularly establishing a “narrative arc” for the entire movement. A similar situation arose with the variations movement in K. 305, but this can be more easily explained as Mozart strutting his talents to promote his candidacy for employment. Beethoven, on the other hand, was beginning to think about larger-scale architectures for composition. Opus 47 was completed in 1803, the same year he spent working on his Opus 55 (“Eroica”) symphony in E-flat major. Thus, while Chen could give a splendid account of Beethoven’s capacity for virtuosity at Presto tempo, it seemed as if he was still finding his way through the logic behind the variations.

The “dessert course” that preceded Opus 47 consisted of two of Sarasate’s Spanish dances, the habanera from Opus 21 and the Andalusian playera from Opus 23, followed by the composer’s best known piece, the Opus 20 “Zigeunerweisen” (Gypsy airs). The playera was the most introspective of these, obviously derived from a particularly Andalusian approach to vocalization. Chen’s ability to establish a “tone of voice” rhetoric for this dance was just as impressive as his command of technically demanding virtuoso passages, if not more so. In this rather brief but highly expressive interlude, Chen revealed a soulful side that he would do well to cultivate for further exposure. Opus 20, on the other hand, was executed as the no-holds-barred virtuoso tour de force that Sarasate intended it to be, leaving no cliché unturned.

The post-Beethoven encore Sarasate was the Opus 43 tarantella with a slow introduction. This demonstrated that Chen had left a few fireworks yet to be detonated, a sure way to prompt the audience to ask for more. His second selection returned to his more introspective side with a well-honed sensitive reading of the “Meditation” from Jules Massenet’s opera Thaïs, bringing the evening to a quiet conclusion in the wake of an abundance of excitement.