This preview has been provided by the Greensboro Symphony

by David L. Nelson

When most up-and-coming violin soloists are attempting to start a career as a virtuoso, they take the traditional approach of landing a major recording contract and hoping to get invitations to perform with prestigious orchestras. This week’s soloist with the Greensboro Symphony has added a contemporary twist to the tried and true methods: he is an avid “Tweeter” with more than 500 online followers.

Ray Chen was born in Taiwan in 1989, yet raised in Brisbane, Australia. He began violin at the age of four, progressed through all ten levels of the Suzuki Violin Method within five years, and even soloed with the Queensland Philharmonic Orchestra when he was eight. In a recent interview, he was asked why he got started on the violin. “I’m not quite sure where I got the idea; however, I do know that it was my idea, as I picked up the toy guitar, put it under my chin and played it with a chopstick.”

Some Suzuki Perks

The Suzuki Method also had other perks for him beyond learning the instrument. “When I was learning this method, there were two things that were important to me: the part where I played in front of everybody and the break where we would snack on cookies.”

When Ray was ten, he was chosen as “Young Space Musician of the Year” and was awarded a prestigious scholarship in Sydney. As he started to win competitions, one of the judges called him “one of the most talented and accomplished young violinists to have emerged from Australia.”

Ray’s first win in an international competition came in the Yehudi Menuhin International Competition in Wales where one of the judges was the conductor Maxim Vengerov. The musical director was so impressed with Chen’s playing that the young soloist was engaged to perform with the Mariinsky Theatre Orchestra in St. Petersburg and at the International Rostropovich Festival in Azerbaijan. Vengerov later said of Ray, “He has proven himself to be a very pure musician with great qualities such as a beautiful youthful tone, vitality and lightness. He has all the skills of a truly musical interpreter.”

Mimicking the Stradivari Sound

One of Ray’s methods for developing his beautiful violin tone was quite unique. At one of the competitions, a violin dealer had a Stradivarius. Chen continues, “I had never before played on one and immediately fell in love with the sound of the instrument. Every day, for the rest of the competition, I went to his exhibition to play on that Strad and tried to make my violin have the same sound.”

It was in 2009 when Ray captured his most significant feat yet, First Prize of the 2009 Queen Elisabeth International Violin Competition in Brussels, Belgium. This not only brought him numerous concert engagements and a recording contract, but also the three-year loan of the “Huggins” Stradivarius from the Nippon Music Foundation. The work he had done to imitate the sound of the Stradivari at the earlier competition must have worked. He was the youngest participant in Brussels.

The Tweeting Violinist

With all his success in competitions, Ray is certainly making a name for himself in the established world of classical music. But how does an emerging virtuoso connect to a younger audience? One way that Ray has done that is through Twitter. You can pull up his tweets at @raychenviolin. In addition to his posts about his touring schedule, he writes about what any other 22-year old would be interested in. Some of Ray’s recent tweets include, talking about getting a new iPhone 4S, an especially delicious hamburger at a restaurant called Village Whiskey, and about how he needs to get a haircut when he is in Manila!

Maybe Ray will even send a tweet during intermission this week as he performs with the Greensboro Symphony Orchestra.