Ray Chen is a Taiwanese-Australian violinist and talks to Global Times’ Huang Tingting about his new album which includes a quartet version of ‘Waltzing Matilda’ – one of Australia’s best-known bush ballads.
Despite the serious silhouette he presents at concerts, many non-hardcore fans’ first impression of Chinese Australian violinist Ray Chen comes from the funny videos he posts on Facebook and SoundCloud.
The first prize winner of the 2008 International Yehudi Menuhin Violin Competition and the 2009 Queen Elisabeth Music Competition and the second ethnic Chinese musician to perform at the annual Nobel Prize Concert in 2012 following Chinese pianist Lang Lang, the 29-year-old violinist has become a classical music Internet celebrity of sorts with more than 2 million subscribers on audio sharing platform SoundCloud and more than 130,000 followers on Facebook.
From funny self-produced videos of him putting on little skits during routine violin practices to serious stage performances and online master classes, Chen’s social media presence is packed with all kinds of content that shows off the artist’s sense of humour and talent.
One of the Curtis Institute of Music graduate’s most-watched videos shows him playing Johann Sebastian Bach’s ‘Sarabande’. Posted on YouTube in January, it has more than 46,000 views – a relatively impressive figure for classical music videos.
“Ray Chen is shattering classical music stereotypes and carving out a unique fan base,” wrote a report from Australian news broadcaster SBS in 2017.
“For me, the goal was never to be a celebrity,” the Taipei-born musician told the Global Times after the Beijing release party for his new album The Golden Age in mid-June.
“Otherwise, if I just wanted to have more fans I would just do funny videos. I want something more than that – I want to reach out to people, to entertain them not just for fun, but also for education,” he noted.
Writing and directing most of the videos posted on his social media accounts, Chen said he is doing it “for the next generation of classical music audiences”. As the declining popularity of classical music has been felt not only in Asia, but also in many other parts of the world, Chen said he especially wants to “show young audiences that classical music can be fun”.
Apparently enjoying his outings as an amateur director, the busy violinist took time out to direct and write scripts for his new album’s official promotional video so as to ensure it possessed the same lively atmosphere of his previous videos. His creative expression isn’t just limited to his online videos, Chen has also unexpectedly become the center of discussion online due to the exaggerated facial expressions that cross his face during concert performances.
“I once even saw some YouTube users comment that I looked like I had smelt something bad when I was playing,” Chen joked, going on to explain that these expressions are not something he does on purpose since he is too busy focusing on the melodies.
Expressing interest in interacting with his growing Chinese fan base using short-video platforms such as Tik Tok, or Douyin as it is called in China, Chen has a relatively positive outlook on the impact that technology is having on classical music today.
“Music, in the end, is to be heard through the ears, so it doesn’t matter if the music is from your iPhone or iPad or you create music using these devices,” Chen said.
But technology does have a bad side in his opinion.
“I rarely look at the audience when I am performing, because I don’t want to accidently see someone recording. They’re not enjoying the concert. Technology is 100 percent a distraction. But at the same time, if you use it correctly, then it can also be an amazing tool,” noted the violinist.
Always ready to embrace new things, the classical music professional is also keen on restoring “the grand tradition” of the genre. This attitude is shown via Chen’s pick of repertoire for his new album.
Vowing to restore an intimate relationship with the audience and showcasing sound quality that approaches that of vinyl records, Chen said his new album, which has Max Bruch’s “Violin Concerto No 1 in G minor” as the centerpiece, is dedicated to late classical music composers and performers including Bruch, US violinist Jascha Heifetz and Austrian violinist Fritz Kreisler.
Moreover, the album also includes a new string quartet version of “Waltzing Matilda” – one of Australia’s best-known bush ballads – that combines US Blue Grass, country music and even rock-n-roll elements arranged and played by Chen and his Made in Berlin quartet.
“Just like what Heifetz and Kreisler used to do, we wish to add in some new arrangements while performing classic pieces… Maybe they do not sound like traditional classical music pieces as we’re creating something new and free,” Chen noted.