19 November 2016

Ray Chen plays with New Century Chamber Orchestra

The Saturday after the presidential election I trekked out to Herbst Theater in San Francisco to hear violinist Ray Chen as guest soloist and conductor for New Century Chamber Orchestra. I believe he also chose the program. It was an evening that brought balm, despite the woman behind me coughing all through the Mozart Violin concerto #3 (followed by an impressive improvised cadenza of constant throat-clearing).

The performance opened with a different Mozart piece, the Divertimento in F major, K. 138. As you might guess from the composer's name, the music was a portal into a world very different from the one most of us have been living in recently. The performers all stood in a semi-circle. Chen is a very physical performer, leaning forward, leaning backwards, sometimes goggling his eyes at others as they saw away (this made one of the people in front of me giggle; I didn't think it was that funny, actually). I had heard him once before, at a subscriber gift concert sponsored by San Francisco Performances, but it was interesting to watch him interact with a whole group and not just one pianist. He conducted too, waving his bow as his baton. He has a full sound, capable of sweetness and pathos. The first half ended with Britten's Variations on a Theme of Frank Bridge, in a haunting performance that brought out things I was not expecting from this music, with which I am mildly and vaguely familiar – here it was sadder, deeper, more mystical and mysterious than I had expected.

I'm not a big fan of chat from the stage, though I realize that is yet another losing battle of mine. I have to say that Chen does it better than most; he's very good-humored and extremely charming. He does ramble a bit, but so do they all, and his ramblings at least led us to amusing and unexpected places. At one point he noted that his original Australian accent had returned, as it sometimes does when he speaks publicly (his background is Taiwanese and Australian; he moved to this country at age 16, roughly a decade ago, to attend the Curtis Institute). In discussing his programming, he quoted his father as saying, "Mozart is to music as oil is to the wok," a koanic comparison that led to a moment of apparently stunned contemplation on the part of the audience. He also introduced us to his violin, joking that it was his girlfriend. It turns out he plays the Joachim Stradivarius – the very instrument played by Joseph Joachim, the great nineteenth-century violinist. Chen joked that this means that when he plays pieces like the Brahms Violin Concerto (dedicated to and first performed by Joachim) "the notes are already there, I just have to pull them out." I would have been interested in hearing how he came to play that instrument, but he did not tell us, and it was time to return to music anyway.

The charming Chen can go into different places when he plays (music coming from inside perhaps being a truer form of communication than words directed outwardly), and the second half opened with a stylish yet searching performance of Mozart's Violin Concerto #3 (accompanied by coughing directly behind me, as previously mentioned), followed by the stately rolling clouds of Elgar's Introduction and Allegro for Strings.

I can't emphasize enough how good it was to hear this music performed so richly at the end of a week that left most of us shocked, angry, and disgusted. I don't buy a lot of the bromides about art: I think music can divide us as easily as bring us together, I'm not sure anything can heal what has been happening in this country, but it was profoundly moving to see this varied group come together and, working in harmony, create and recreate the fleeting beauty left us by those who have gone ahead of us. What was happening outside had still (and was still) happening, but during the concert I kept thinking about Larkin's lines about the jazz trumpeter Sidney Bechet:

On me your voice falls as they say love should,
Like an enormous yes. . . .

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