Celebrating the worldwide release of his first orchestral album, Tchaikovsky and Mendelssohn: Violin Concertos, Ray Chen presented a fairly typical selection of classical music: Bach, Brahms, Tchaikovsky and Saint-Saëns. But from the moment Chen took to the stage at (Le) Poisson Rouge, it was clear the evening’s concert was bound to break a few rules.

© Ray Chen
© Ray Chen

Beginning with JS Bach’s Chaconne, the fifth and final movement of his Violin Partita no. 2 in D minor, Chen jokingly described the piece as ‘the answer to the meaning of life’ (not 42, as Hitchhiker’s Guide fans might say). Jokes aside, the Chaconne is a serious piece of music and Chen did not disappoint. Tackling double stops and relentless rhythms, Chen was shredding violin strings within minutes. And when the pace quickened, Chen’s cheerful spirit exalted his already brilliant performance. A grueling 15 minutes for any violinist – even Itzhak Perlman was sweating during his performance on BBC Radio 3’s lunchtime concert back in 1978 – but Chen maintained a contained ferocity that is essential in Bach’s music.

After literally wiping the sweat from his brow, Chen broke the solemn spell of the lingering Chaconne. Laughing at his slivered bow, he leaned into the microphone and said, ‘It’s losing hair like my Dad!’ Amidst the audience’s laughter, Chen introduced his piano partner, Julio Elizalde. Within minutes, the theme from Brahms’ Sonata no. 3 in F minor rang out. A romantic first movement, it is also very playful: a quality that Chen and Elizalde picked up on easily. With the melody jumping back and forth between violin and piano, Chen established the breathy, expressive setting of Brahms’ Allegro movement with the opening cantabile melody, while Elizalde sustained the romantic illusion with prolonged use of pedal underneath the theme. Perfectly in sync, Chen and Elizalde never skipped a beat despite all of the flourishes in Brahms’ score.

Part of a true partnership, the piano was not mere background noise. In the second movement, Elizalde’s gentle staccato notes below Chen’s long, rubato lines created a fragile, sparkling effect underneath a dramatic and sombre movement. And in the third movement, the piano took center stage. Elizalde’s style was quick and light, giving voice to the boisterous and catchy scherzando.

Only in the triumphant fourth movement did I yearn for the grandeur of a concert hall; the impassioned melodies in both violin and piano felt trapped on the tiny, black stage at (Le) Poisson Rouge. Nevertheless, Chen and Elizalde delivered a thunderous conclusion.

A tremendous hit with the crowd, Chen returned to his goofy personality and took the opportunity to chat with his audience, going so far as to welcome both the taboo clapping between movements – ‘You can clap if you want to!’ he shouted – and flash-less photography throughout the performance. Chen even plugged his Facebook and Twitter pages, urging members to post their photos and like his page.

After this brief respite, Chen and Elizalde dove right back into the music, delivering a masterful rendition of Tchaikovsky’s popular Mélodie, the beautiful lullaby from Souvenir d’un lieu cher.

Then it was the work by Saint-Saëns. A curious piece, its opening 36-bar melody sounds like a march, with seemingly straightforward themes. But then Chen hankered down and nailed both virtuosic arpeggios and chromatic scalic passages. Just like in the Bach Chaconne, Chen’s fingers raced up and down his bow, shredding strings as he went along. In the piano, Elizalde played block chord progressions, again alluding to a march; but the harmonic minor and syncopated rhythms evoked more of a Spanish flair, delighting the senses further. Exciting and colourful, it ended at breakneck speed, as a simple major-key cadence rang out in the piano.

After three encores, Chen bid adieu to his audience with an invite to an afterparty at SPiN, a club known for its free ping-pong competitions that churn the midnight oil. Clearly, this 22-year-old was not ready to end the night.

In the end, Chen delivered a concert that was anything but what it seemed. His concert style may have been unorthodox, what with all the talking, clapping and iPad photos being taken, but undeniably, his performance was flawless. The result: an evening of enchanting classical music, yes, but also a unique glimpse into the life of a dynamic, charming and staggeringly talented young musician.