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Violinist Ray Chen, a rapidly rising international artist, presented a superb concert at Beckwith Recital Hall, on the campus of the University of North Carolina Wilmington. The event was part of the Masters Series offered by the UNCW Office of Cultural Arts. The season has just begun, but this performance is likely to remain in the ears of the sold-out audience as one of the high points of the concert year.
The first work was Mozart's two-movement Sonata in A Major, K. 305. The energetic start to the piece was immediately a glimpse into Chen's playing style. It was dynamic and incisive, far from the genteel neutrality one sometimes hears in Mozart. The unfolding of the piece showed Chen's wide tonal variety, such that the scarcely-varied section repeats were welcome to experience. The accompanist, Julio Elizalde, matched the violinist's rhythm and tonal inflections with perfect synergy. These are two performers who embody the essence of chamber music in their work together.
The high point of the program was the following Sonata No. 2 in D Major by Sergei Prokofiev. This difficult and hugely-varied work was played with virtuosic aplomb and the widest range of tone and expression. The opening theme in the violin was most expressive and elegiac. One could take issue with the amount of rubato Chen deployed here, but it sang achingly. The following section was vehement, and Chen handled the wide spans of dynamics, pitch and bowing consummately.
The second movement opened with high-energy lightness. Once again here, there was perfect delineation of line from low to very high, over a widely-spaced melodic range. The third movement gave off long, expressive melody and showcased Chen's wonderful ppp. The near-perfect acoustics of Beckwith Hall were on full display here as well. The last movement began jauntily and caught a rustic dance feeling. The second occurence of the meno mosso section was another illustration of the perfect tonal match between Chen and his equally artful pianist. A soaring violin peak led to a powerful chordal climax at the last return. This was a performance likely to linger long in the memories of those who experienced it.
After intermission Chen performed a cappella in the Partita No. 3 in E Major, S.1006, by J.S. Bach. The dances were artfully and dynamically characterized, from the delicate Loure to the energetic Giga. Each was played with wonderfully clear intonation and delineation of line. The one drawback was interpretive. Chen's rubato was regularly large enough that it weakened the rhythmic focus and clarity that the dances ought to have.
The final music on the program consisted of three fluffy pieces by Pablo de Sarasate. These were two Spanish Dances and finally the Zigeunerweisen (Gypsy Tunes), Op. 20. They gave full rein to Chen's fabulous virtuosity, with lightening fingers and bow amply on display. Occasional lapses in intonation showed that even such a young and impressive violinist can eventually become tired in a demanding program. But his energy level never flagged. The opening of the "Habañera" was most energetic, even severe, though lacking perhaps in any sensual dance quality. That quality came forth in the middle section, as did challenging double stops in octaves.
The darker "Playera" had a wonderful dusky sound in the piano. Chen brought forth beautiful low register playing here. The concluding gypsy-style piece veered between open display and equally open sentimental effusion. The many mood changes led to the expected high-powered virtuoso ending and a well-deserved ovation from the audience.
Added to the superb playing was an engaging rapport with the audience in Chen's spoken comments; he takes it as part of his mission to bring audiences to a love of classical music. It would be hard to imagine a more effective emissary than this wonderful young artist.
This admirable series continues on October 24 with the premiere of Meira Warshauer's Ocean Calling. For details, click here.