Chen’s sparkling debut closes Union’s chamber festival

The 39th International Festival of Chamber Music presented its last concert of the season Wednesday

The 39th International Festival of Chamber Music presented its last concert of the season Wednesday night at Union College’s Memorial Chapel with a sensational debut recital by violinist Ray Chen.

Still only 22, he has yet to hit the big time as far as regular major orchestral appearances and annual recitals at Carnegie Hall. To date, he’s known as the grand prize winner of the 2009 Queen Elisabeth International Violin Competition, which had followed a 2008 win at the Young Concert Artists International Auditions. His first disc, “Virtuoso” (Sony Classical) is already a mega hit. But a star-studded career is sure to come.

It’s hard to find enough superlatives to describe Chen’s playing: fabulous technique, bold and daring interpretations, a rich singing tone, marvelous sensitivity and a wonderful roundness to his phrasing.

He’s also a charmer and obviously loves to engage the audience as part of the show. His off-the-cuff, upbeat comments about the music, his humor, his self-possessed but engaging manner and his little waves to the crowd as he exited encompassed a picture of a guy who was thoroughly enjoying himself and completely at home on stage.

Chen was helped with the equally exquisite support of his pianist/partner Andrew Tyson–another prize winner and at 24 still attending graduate school at Juilliard. His tone was as shaded and variable as Chen’s and his technique was no less formidable.

Their program showed off a wide-range of styles. They began with Giuseppe Tartini’s Sonata in G minor (“Devil’s Trill”). Phrases breathed with lift and elegance, tempos were electric, rhythmic pulses were strong, pitch was exact and the trills were tight. The cadenza of the final movement was flamboyant, dramatic and intense.

Cesar Franck’s Sonata is one of the great pieces of the repertoire. Both players sung the marvelous melodies with a deep lyricism and provided unexpected shades of tone and inflection. The technique was never forced but flowed with the turbulence of a rushing stream. It was an inspired reading.

Chen was powerful in Bach’s Chaconne from Partita in D minor for solo violin. His statements had great conviction, direction, intensity and drama. He lightened his presentation only a bit for Wieniawski’s two showstoppers: “Saltarelle” and Varations on an Original Theme. Both were finger twisters with lots of schmaltz that bring him much pleasure to play: he smiled through both as he watched his fingers dance up and down the fingerboard.

His encore was Gluck’s sublime “Melody from the Dance of the Blessed Spirits.” It was utter magic.

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