Music fans of the 20th century tend to mourn the end of the golden age of soloist superstars – Stern, Rubinstein, du Pré – but the dawning of the 21st-century superstars is among us and gaining a following – for better or for worse – in the same way as celebrities and world leaders: through the use of social media. Violinist Ray Chen is one of those budding superstars whose combined talent and klout have shot him into the spotlight, drawing young faces to the concert hall in hordes. Joining Maestro Christoph Eschenbach and the musicians of the Bamberger Symphoniker for a tour across the United States, Chen headlined a pops concert of Austro-German music, complete with a riveting interpretation of the Mendelssohn Violin Concerto in E minor and an sufficient performance of Mahler’s Fifth Symphony.

Ray Chen © Sophie Zhai
Ray Chen
© Sophie Zhai

Encompassing nearly three hours, the program was a bit long for 21st-century attention spans. For instance, if the first piece, the Overture to Don Giovanni – with startling roots in Bamberg that trace back to the premiere(!) of the opera – was not played, a few more of the audience members might have stayed until the end of the Mahler. However, in addition to fulfilling its function in the conservative Overture-Concerto-Symphony method of concert programming, the overture did serve as a good warm-up for the orchestra, allowing the woodwind section, specifically, to set their intonation straight in the unfamiliar hall. After a rocky start, the musicians of Bamberg quickly showed why they should be taken very seriously as a world-class orchestra; the movement among the string players and the highly communicative choreography across the entire ensemble unified Mozart’s often segmented motifs that frequently hop throughout the orchestra.

Violinist Ray Chen has amassed hundreds of thousands of followers – endearingly called “Raybaes” – on social media and has successfully cultivated his following through goofy, candid videos; his strategy should be studied seriously by other rising superstars in the industry, especially those who might be under the auspices of old-school managers. Mendelssohn’s Violin Concerto, famously recorded in 1951 by Yehudi Menuhin, whose competition Chen won in 2008, is an audience-friendly hit with broad appeal. Chen’s interpretation was evocative, and the lusty sound of his Strad (the 1715 “Joachim”) carried powerfully, albeit loudly, in the hall. His cool, down-to-earth manner and attentive communication with Maestro Eschenbach allowed for a healthy amount of temporal flexibility. Chen encored with Paganini’s Caprice no. 21 after trading his war-torn bow for the Concertmaster’s. Keeping in mind the drove of fans who couldn’t make it to New York to hear him, Chen affectionately posted a photo of the evening’s performance after the concert with the caption: “Hey mom, watch me!”

Following the interval, Maestro Eschenbach and the Bambergers executed a satisfactory interpretation of Mahler’s restorative Fifth Symphony. After the vast political changes of 2016, Mahler’s Fifth suddenly begins to sound a lot like the five stages of grief: denial/isolation (Trauermarsch), anger (Stürmisch bewegt, mit größter Vehemenz), bargaining (Scherzo), depression (Adagietto), and, optimistically, acceptance (Rondo-Finale). The Bamberg trumpet section nailed the opening fanfare, dishing out a series of precisely articulated firecrackers that exploded into the burly funeral procession. Horn player Christoph Eß deserves extra special praise for his solo in the Scherzo that commanded courage and spunk. Unfortunately, the Adagietto did not achieve its full potential because the Maestro and the musicians had contrasting ideas of how to pace the rubato phrases, and since the Maestro was not able to maintain control, the climaxes did not arrive at the same moments. Being the most anticipated movement of the symphony, it was more than a minor let-down, but the orchestra nevertheless pushed through the Finale with full energy to that final, ambiguous D, perceivably major, triad with a missing third. Finishing with a brief nod to their Czech roots, the Bambergers encored with the “Dance of the Comedians” from Smetana’s The Bartered Bride.